Throwback Thursday: Remembering The Lady Lions’ 2000 Final Four Run
With all of the hot-button conversation revolving around March Madness, Penn State basketball fans are left without any participant to cheer for in either of the main NCAA basketball tournament fields.
The Lady Lions have taken care of their first two postseason tournament opponents – in the Women’s NIT (they host their Round of Sixteen matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies on Thursday), while the men’s team has spent March at home since its elimination from the Big Ten Tournament.
However, each of the programs has enjoyed success in the Big Dance, more notably, the women’s team. The Lady Lions made the NCAA tournament 21 out of 24 times from 1981 to 2005, and even won the WNIT in one of their three missed seasons. Under head coach Rene Portland during that time frame, Penn State enjoyed a 33-21 record in the NCAA tournament, and made eight Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights, and even a Final Four berth.
That memorable tournament run that led the Lady Lions to the national semifinals came at the end of a rebuilding process that began after the Lady Lions’ exit from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen following the 1995-96 season. After missing the postseason in 1996-97, the Lady Lions won the WNIT the following season and made the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1998-99, finishing with a 22-8 record.
This rebuilding effort was led by Penn State basketball legend Helen Darling. Recruited at the beginning of the rebuilding process, Darling grew under Portland’s Lady Lions into the Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior in the year of the Final Four appearance, the first ever Lady Lion to win such an award.
The point guard Darling, along with four other future 1,000 point scorers for Penn State, Andrea Garner, Lisa Shepherd, Maren Walseth and Rashana Barnes, led the team on a tear from the end of 1999 into the new millenium.
Portland coached the squad to wins over No. 6 Auburn in the Big Ten-SEC Challenge, and conference wins over No. 12 Purdue and another No. 12 Illinois squad. The three wins over these nationally-ranked powers, alongside of close losses to top-ranked UConn and a road loss to a ranked Duke team, gave this Penn State team all of the experience and challenges it needed to be prepared for such an incredible streak of results in March.
After they ended the regular season 29-3 with just one conference loss, the Lady Lions were upset in the Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinals by Purdue. They still obtained a two seed in the NCAA Tournament, which helped them blow by 15th-seeded Youngstown State with ease in round one.
A rematch with the seven-seed Auburn brought a tighter result, but the Lady Lions still prevailed 75-69 as four Penn State starters scored in double figures. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Lady Lions held on against the third-seeded Iowa State Cyclones by the slimmest of margins, 66-65, to advance to a rematch with one of women’s college basketball’s most storied programs and the team that had eliminated them from the NCAA tournament a year before: Louisiana Tech.
Not only did the Lady Lions come into the game with a chip on their shoulder, but they absolutely blew out Louisiana Tech 86-65 thanks to three combined Lady Lion double-doubles by Darling, Garner, and Warseth, in addition to a 25-point night for Lisa Shepherd. The Lady Lions’ defense held the Bulldogs to just 32.5-percent shooting from the field for the game.
Despite the fact that the Lady Lions met their match in their third rematch of the Big Dance, an 89-67 loss to the eventual national champion UConn Huskies, they played the Goliath opponent much closer than the score would indicate. Penn State trailed by as little as five points midway through the second half, but the incredible depth of the Huskies was just too much for the Blue and White to endure.
The game, which took place inside of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, took the record at the time as the most-attended college basketball game in the entire state of Pennsylvania. The season shows that there can in fact be a contender on the court within the confines of the Bryce Jordan Center, as each of the programs has come within two wins of lifting the national championship trophy (the men made the Final Four in 1954).
For now, Penn State basketball fans can only look back on the memories and hope and trust that “the process” can bring hoops success to Happy Valley.
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