I've told a lot of people this, but I was the first person on line for Return to Rec. I got there at 9:30 a.m., stood there with my thumb up my ass until the doors opened at noon, and sat in the front row. I was ready for a madhouse.
What I was not ready for was Penn State blowing a 20 point lead over the game's final 8:29 to Princeton, something that changed the course of the entire season.
When we got the email from the mothership asking us to talk about a specific moment/game that led to where Penn State is today, I decided to take it, mostly because I want people to read this and schadenfreude all over the place. Plus this is a weird catharsis for me, but whatever. If you don't think Return to Rec impacted Penn State's season, you're insane.
Let's look at what happened leading up to the game. Penn State was 8-3, and two of its three losses -- getting moderately screwed out of the Barclays Center Classic finals against Ole Miss and giving Pitt all it could handle in Pittsburgh -- were totally understandable. Hell, if you want to argue that the loss to Bucknell made sense, since Bucknell had a shooting night that maybe 10-15 teams in America could overcome, I'd understand and probably agree.
But most importantly, Penn State looked awesome in its first 11 games. The Nittany Lions were crisp on offense, Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill were backing up Pat Chambers' "Best Backcourt in the Country" claim, and everyone else from Brandon Taylor to Julian Moore were contributing. Sure, there were some issues on defense, but other than that, things looked great.
The first half of Return to Rec was exactly the same. Penn State didn't look good, Penn State looked great. The old school jerseys were awesome, the students were right on top of the court, the 6,000 or so people who usually make the BJC look like a cavernous void made Rec Hall intimidating as all hell. It was just different. It was the kind of thing that people have bitched and moaned that the BJC has been missing. It didn't feel like an arena that hosts basketball games, it felt like a basketball arena.
The Nittany Lions came out and blitzed the Tigers, taking a 35-23 lead into half, although it felt more insurmountable than that. Just being there, close enough that I could take one step forward and be on the court, it felt like there was no chance in hell that Princeton would win. There wasn't. There couldn't be. It just wasn't happening.
The first 12 minutes of the second half were exactly the same. Penn State continued to keep Princeton at bay. It wasn't what Penn State was supposed to do, it was what a good basketball team was supposed to do, and Penn State looked like a really, really good basketball team.
And then, mayhem. I remember turning to my friends and going "wait, this is getting close," and it was. 20 points became 18, then 16, then down and down and down until Princeton gets one last possession down two. Ross Travis -- who just made 1 of 2 free throws that could have sealed the game -- committed a foul against Princeton's Spencer Weisz, who of course canned both shots from the charity stripe. Overtime.
Going into OT, it was over. There was no way we were winning. We just blew a 20 point lead, and every last ounce of momentum was with the Tigers. There was no chance in hell Penn State could win. There wasn't. There couldn't be. It just wasn't happening.
Princeton came out and looked crisp. A three point Princeton lead felt just as insurmountable as Penn State's 20 point lead a bit earlier. However, the Tigers couldn't put the Nittany Lions away. Princeton toyed with all of us, unable to make its free throws down the stretch. Penn State gets it to 80-79 with five seconds left. Princeton is fouled. T.J. Bray, an 80.8 percent free throw shooter, makes one of two. Penn State gets one last chance.
You know the rest. Frazier goes deep. He catches a hail mary, goes up for a layup that he makes 99 out of 100 times. Of course, this was that one time. He misses. Game over. 81-79. Princeton wins.
The theory that other Penn State fans and I have had since then is that the team never totally recovered from the loss. In its next game against Mount St. Mary's, the team struggled, but was able to pull out a win. Then, conference play started, where Penn State lost six in a row. Three of those losses were by a combined seven points.
The Nittany Lions looked a little better down the stretch, going 6-6 in its final 12 games, but some of the issues closing out games remained.
Maybe if Penn State beats Princeton, the close games are flipped the other way. The Nittany Lions lost six conference games by five points or fewer. Maybe getting that win swings two of three of them, and the team is 9-9 instead of 6-12. Hell, maybe it boosts the team's confidence, it learns how to close out/win games, and it goes 12-6 in conference play. Nobody knows. None of us ever will.
Return to Rec was awesome. The pageantry, the hype, the feel of the game was all amazing. The first 32 minutes of the game were amazing. But as we all know, nothing is more irrelevant than the score at halftime, or in this case, the score with just over 8 minutes remaining. Those last 8 minutes, plus overtime, changed the course of the entire season for the worse.
Man, f*** Return to Rec.