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Hope Is A Good Thing

What a night.

When Penn State collapsed away a 19-point lead to Rutgers in February, it seemed as though the Nittany Lions’ NCAA tournament bubble had bursted. Micah Shrewsberry and crew had little wiggle room if it wanted to book the program’s first ticket to March Madness since 2011, and by blowing that golden opportunity, their backs were quite literally against the wall. Matchups against Northwestern and Maryland were still on the docket and represented reprieve for the gaffe against Rutgers, but the prospects of picking up the pieces and reigniting the spirit of a team that experienced an on-the-court nightmare seemed improbable at best.

Turn the page a few weeks later, and it’s something out of a script in a Hollywood movie. First, there were Cam Wynter’s heroics against Northwestern and Maryland.

Next, the Nittany Lions went on a magical run in the Big Ten tournament. They came back to beat Illinois, survived another overtime with Northwestern, and held off a late push from Indiana. They eventually fell to Purdue in the championship game, but not before a thunderous comeback in the final five minutes to nearly steal the crown from the Boilermakers.

Penn State safely clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, but had a tough draw in Texas A&M. Like the Nittany Lions, the Aggies were one of the hottest teams in America, coming in second place in the SEC and being winners of 10 of their previous 12 contests. They were expected to get a 5 or a 6 seed, but alas, Penn State’s received the gift of a dangerous A&M squad.

And you know what Penn State did? Beat the hell out of ‘em.

Jalen Pickett controlled the pace of the game, booty balling his way to 19 points, 8 boards, and 7 times. Andrew Funk rained down all heaven on those poor Aggies, going 8-11 from beyond the arc — and cashing in three free throws on a fouled three-point attempt — to the tune of 27 points. Even Kebba Njie, the ever-learning freshman, took advantage of the gravity of Penn State’s shooters by rolling to the rim and finishing with heavy two-hand slams.

In a word, it was a perfect night for Penn State basketball. But Lord knows that the path to this point has been anything perfect. Of course, we started this article with Penn State blowing a near-20-point lead and almost seeing its tournament hopes flash away in an instance, but that’s just the tip of iceberg when it comes to Penn State basketball the last decade-plus. I mean, tournament hopes slipping away during the last week of the season would have been a dream season for much of the last 20 years. Since the Nittany Lions last made a Sweet 16, this is what basketball fans have had to live with:

Failure. Loss. Perhaps even torture? But man, despite the jokes that no one at Penn State cares about basketball, I can tell you that’s wrong. There are people who watched every single game of THAT above. Look at this Twitter thread from yesterday where Penn State basketball fans are talking about losses to Rider, Duquesne, Albany, and Bradley. You don’t recall losing to Joe Cremo unless you care about this program.

I think for me, after a game like last night’s, you just think of the journey for this fan base to get here. I can’t sit here and say I’m a part of the *true* Penn State basketball sicko crew like some of you, but the one thing I’ve always admired through the DeChellis and Chambers years: the diehards always had hope, even when they probably shouldn’t have. That’s what makes sports beautiful. That despite the odds, despite the reality of the situation, despite everything that goes and has gone against Penn State basketball: there was never quit among the truly loyal supporters in this fan base. There was always hope that eventually it would fall magically into place, and last night was one heck of a payoff.

The Nittany Lions’ journey isn’t done yet this year; they’ll face off against 2-seed Texas on Saturday. In true Penn State fashion, they’ll be underdogs. But, like always, there’s hope.