For Lady Lions, a Painful Ending, Full of Promise

March 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm 1 comment

Coquese Washington and Julia Trogele walked in with sniffles and moist, red eyes. Nikki Greene just looked dazed. The coach and two players who represented the Lady Lion basketball team in front of the media late Monday had different ways of showing it, but the pain was evident on the faces of all three.

Their season was over. The end had come swift and cruel.

Penn State lost to DePaul Monday in the second round of the NCAA tournament, falling 75-73. The final points came on a pair of DePaul free throws with 4.9 seconds left, turning a tie game into a deficit the Lady Lions simply ran out of time to erase. That they led for nearly 39 of the game’s 40 minutes only magnified the sting.

Afterward, they fulfilled their obligation and met the press, Trogele, a senior captain, talking willingly while Greene, a soft-spoken sophomore who appeared overwhelmed by the moment, sat silently next to her. I only covered the Lady Lions twice this season—the first time being a regular-season loss to Michigan State—so I didn’t have a great sense of what makes these players and coaches tick.

On Monday, I saw enough to come away thoroughly impressed.

It was Trogele, a versatile starting forward, who missed an open jumper with about 15 seconds left Monday that could’ve given Penn State the lead. And when questions in the postgame press conference focused (understandably) on the foul call against teammate Alex Bentley that allowed DePaul to take the lead from the foul line with 4.9 left, it was Trogele who redirected blame toward herself.

“I missed the shot, and they put the ball in their best player’s hands,” Trogele said. “Alex, I don’t know if it was a foul or not, but it doesn’t come down to one play. It’s not her fault. We should’ve held our lead.”

Season-ending losses are never easy, but the fact that Penn State led by 14 in the second half, and by a basket in the final minute, made this one that much more painful. But again, there was Trogele, talking through her still-moist eyes, thanking her coaches, teammates, Lady Lion fans, and even the team trainers and managers by name. “Class” is an overused word in sports, but Trogele personified it.

Coquese Washington was pretty impressive, too. The ambitious fourth-year head coach has brought the Lady Lions incrementally back toward a level of excellence the program was once known for, and reporters who cover the team regularly have told me just how demanding she can be. She couldn’t hide her disgust with the way last year’s team struggled late in the season before losing to Hofstra in the first round of the NIT—she used the word “embarrassed” four or five times after that final game—and even after wins, she often focuses her postgame comments on her team’s failings.

But on Monday night, talking through sniffles, Washington had nothing but praise for her players and the game itself.

“This was one of the most fun basketball games I’ve ever been a part of,” the coach said. “Great environment, two great teams playing their hearts out, came down to the last second. I couldn’t be more proud of our players, and I couldn’t be more proud of the Penn State family.”

There’s an element of cliche to such statements from a losing coach following defeat in the NCAA tournament, but it was impossible here not to see Washington as sincere. She used the word “fun” half a dozen times. She smiled through the obvious pain.

The Lady Lions are a young team—Trogele is the only senior on the roster—so nearly everyone will be back next season. Washington has already shown her recruiting prowess and figures to bring in more top-notch talent soon. With plenty of reason for optimism around the program next year and beyond, I asked the coach afterward if she could embrace Monday’s loss as a necessary step in the development of her team, and her program, in the climb back toward the top tier of women’s basketball.

“I wouldn’t say necessary,” she said with a smile, “but it seems to happen more often than not. We get ’em all back except for Julia, and I think tonight is one of those things that will stick with them all the way through next year and help us be a better team.”

Ryan Jones, senior editor

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