COLLEGE PARK, MD — There's no denying it: this loss hurts. Badly.
It's painful because No. 12-seeded Penn women's basketball finally gave its deserving seniors — Courtney Wilson, Alyssa Baron and Meghan McCullough — the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament after an incredible four-year run with the Red and Blue.
It's painful because the Quakers went from a peak as tall as Imani McGee-Stafford to the lowest of depths in a matter of minutes, when No. 5 seeded Texas used a run to turn a 32-17 deficit into an insurmountable 68-53 lead with five minutes remaining.
It's painful because unlike so many other double-digit seeds, Penn was truly good enough to win a game in the Big Dance. The Red and Blue tested themselves against Notre Dame and Miami in the nonconference season to prepare for this very moment, and never doubted they'd give Texas a run for its money.
But perhaps most notably, the Quakers 79-61 loss stings with greater intensity because Wilson, Baron and McCullough will never put on a uniform for Penn again.
Sometimes pain is a good thing. Every once in a while , we feel some sort of pain that proves to be cathartic. It's not an enjoyable sensation, because it's the type of hurt that persists, a pit in your stomach that often never goes away, a feeling of disappointment that burns uncontained.
Though it may not be immediately apparent, as painful as this loss to Texas is, nothing but good can come to coach Mike McLaughlin's program as a result.
The emotion emanating from McLaughlin during the postgame press conference was raw and deep. As he nearly choked up while describing his seniors' impact on the program, one could do nothing but empathize with Penn's veterans whose collegiate careers are now completed.
But it wasn't as if the Red and Blue gave away Sunday's game. Even though the Quakers used stifling defense, dazzling efficiency and 20 first-half points from Baron to take an eight-point lead into the break, this Texas team is no slouch.
The Longhorns were clearly the more talented team on the court in Maryland. Largely due to McGee-Stafford's 20 points and 6-foot-7 frame, Texas came roaring back early in the second period.
In the NCAA Tournament, most teams are more talented than the Quakers. But Penn's heart, intensity and veteran leadership kept them in Sunday's contest.
"I don't think we stepped back, I think they stepped up as a team," Wilson said. "We were feeling good ... sometimes leads just go away. Basketball is a game of runs."
Looking ahead to next season, Penn will be well-equipped to make another run to the Big Dance. With Sydney Stipanovich, the 2013-14 Ivy League Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year, still in the fold, as well as Kara Bonenberger and Kathleen Roche , the Quakers are not devoid of talent moving forward.
But clearly, talent isn't all that will guide the Red and Blue in the coming years. The lessons and leadership from this year's seniors will take care of that.
"This has been a great group [of seniors]," McLaughlin said after the game. "What can I say? They changed the complexion of the program, they helped us recruit, they helped us bring in unbelievable character.
"I think [the underclassmen] saw the senior role models every day in the gym do it right."As McLaughlin's squad prepares for its next campaign, it will do so without Wilson, Baron and McCullough . But it will also do so with the pain it felt from Sunday's loss in mind.
That pain will drive the returning players in 2014-15 and for years to come. It will be a hurt that defines a program not satisfied with zero wins in the Tournament.
Unfortunately, it won't be easy for Penn's seniors to feel their pain alleviated.
Yet as Penn continues to have success because of players who played with Baron and McCullough, the work ethic and success of this year's seniors will be the legacy carried on.
And as Penn continues to reach new heights and enjoy success, the seniors' pain will be alleviated, knowing full well that the Quakers are where they are because of them.
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