And then it all fell apart.
The Lady Lions endured a painful second-half collapse, losing to DePaul, 75-73, in Monday night's NCAA Tournament second-round game at the Bryce Jordan Center. It was PSU's first ever NCAA loss at the BJC.
Sixth-seeded Penn State (25-10) jumped out to an early 24-14 lead, with sophomore center Nikki Greene scoring each of her 12 points in the game's opening 13 minutes. The Lady Lions would carry their first-half momentum in the game's second stanza, but ultimately failed to sustain their early success.
We fought extremely hard until the very end, senior forward Julia Trogele said as she wiped away tears after her final game in a Penn State uniform. We needed to extend our lead and not let them creep back into the game. I don't think it was one play that cost us the game. We simply should have held our lead and not let them come back.
A driving force in DePaul's comeback was Penn State's ineptitude on the glass. The third-seeded Blue Demons (29-6) recorded an astonishing 22 offensive rebounds and had 20 second-chance points, most of which came in the second half.
Having seen how active Penn State's guards were on the boards throughout the season, DePaul had its guards consistently boxing out Lady Lions Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas. The duo combined for only two rebounds, with Bentley recording zero.
Despite their struggles on the glass, Penn State held a 67-60 lead with less than six minutes to play before DePaul junior forward Keisha Hampton took over the game. The Blue Demons' leading-scorer in the regular season scored eight points in the final four minutes, including two game-winning free throws after Bentley fouled her on a three-point attempt with four seconds to play.
Penn State would successfully in-bound the ball to Bentley following Hampton's free throws, but a suffocating press defense prevented the Penn State point guard from taking it to the hole like she was told to by coach Coquese Washington. When Bentley finally broke the press she dished the ball to Trogele for a desperation heave that fell well wide of the basket.
DePaul had completed the comeback.
It stinks it how to go down that way; we led for 39 minutes, said Lucas, who shot a miserable 1-11 from the field. Tonight was the worst night of my life. It's going to stick with me for a while. It'll make me better in the long run, though. Some nights (your shots) just don't fall the way you want them to.
A teary-eyed Washington tried her best to remain upbeat in the postgame press conference.
That was one of the most fun basketball games I've ever been a part of, Washington said. A night like tonight is why all of these kids came here. I couldn't be more proud of our players and the Penn State family. I hope ... I know we'll be in more games like this one.
Washington's optimism seemed to rub off on some of her players. Although she only spoke briefly with the media following the game, a visibly distraught Lucas made one final declaration before the Lady Lions closed their locker room for the final time this season.
This should be a warning to all the other teams around the country, Lucas said. We'll be back and we'll be back even stronger than we were this year. We're going to win a national championship.