LINCOLN — Tear'a Laudermill's grin appeared as wide as the basket must have looked to her.
In a Big Ten prizefight, the junior guard and her Nebraska women's basketball teammates delivered a 94-74 knockout performance of No. 8 Penn State on Monday. Laudermill tied the school record with seven 3-pointers — the Huskers hit 16 of 22 3-pointers for the game — and helped give No. 16 NU control of its Big Ten destiny. The Nittany Lions — league champs in 2012 and 2013 — never recovered from Nebraska's fast and-furious first half.
How prolific were the Huskers? They led 52-30 at halftime, shot 67.9 percent (19 of 28) from the floor and 78.6 percent (11 of 14) from 3-point range. Laudermill hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range by herself and scored 22 points. At some point during the game, Laudermill said, coach Connie Yori gave her the green light. She took it.
“That's what set it off,” said Laudermill, who finished with 27 points. “That first 3. I was like 'Omigosh!' My teammates found me and it was on.”
Said Yori: “Our players didn't need coaching tonight. They just needed to go out and play. If you hit shots like that, it makes the game easy.”
In front of 7,253 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena and an ESPN2 national TV audience, Nebraska (21-5 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten) never trailed and led by as many as 32. Senior forward Jordan Hooper swept behind a screen a hit a 3-pointer 15 seconds into the game. She hit another 3 one minute later. Laudermill hit her first trey at the 16:48 mark to give the Huskers a 13-5 lead. Penn State (21-6 and 12-3) then took a 30-second timeout. It changed nothing.
“It was our time — it was our turn,” Hooper said. Penn State had won the last three in the series. “We prepared really well for them. We knew exactly what to expect ... they kind of had our number for two years and we couldn't really do anything against them. We came out with more fire in our eyes and more focus. We were ready.”
PSU coach Coquese Washington said afterward her defensive game plan accounted for Laudermill, who's enjoyed a strong Big Ten campaign. It just didn't appear that way. Laudermill repeatedly got several feet of open court in front of her to launch shots. So did most of the other Huskers. Even Hooper — who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds — had room to spare.
“It's one of those games you kind of flush,” said Washington, who brought no players with her to the interview room. “It was easily our worst defensive performance of the year.”
At least for a half, Nebraska's defense was stout — even stingy — against the free-shooting, playground-style Nittany Lions. The Huskers held PSU's star shooter, Maggie Lucas, scoreless in the first half. She scorched the Huskers for 34 points last year in Lincoln. This time, Laudermill and Hailie Sample swamped her, and NU successfully switched on the many screens Penn State tried to set for her. Lucas missed all five shots in the first half and finished 5 of 18 from the field.
On one possession, a pass — rifled so as to give Lucas a chance at shooting — hit her hands so hard the ball slipped through and bonked the bridge of her nose. The ball popped into Laudermill's hands. She blitzed down the floor and kicked the ball to Rachel Theriot, who hit another 3-pointer.
In the second half Lucas erupted for 17 points — mostly in garbage time — but got frustrated enough with Laudermill's defense and shooting that she hacked Laudermill hard across the face on a shot fake.
“I saw her get real frustrated and thought 'Oh, yes! We're doing our job!' ” said Laudermill, whose brother Theron watched his sister in person for the first time at NU.
Nebraska can now focus on winning its first conference title since 2010. Should the Nittany Lions beat Michigan in their regular-season finale, NU must win its final two games — vs. Illinois Thursday and at No. 19 Purdue Sunday — to share the league crown. Michigan State, also 11-3 in the Big Ten after a 75-61 win over Minnesota, can tie the Huskers and Penn State — or even win the conference outright. Should all three teams tie, Big Ten tiebreaker rules give the nod to Nebraska, which finished 2-1 against PSU and the Spartans.
Yori addressed the Big Ten race with her team before the game. It's the first time, she said, she's acknowledged it all season. But now, with NU riding an eight-game winning streak, the conversation presents itself.
“We've now put ourselves in a position to make it happen,” Yori said.
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Video: Highlights from Nebraska-Penn State