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In a Quiet Locker Room, the Three Emotions of Penn State’s Season

DES MOINES, Iowa – Tucked deep in the hallways of the Wells Fargo Arena you can find Penn State’s locker room. It is full, but it is quiet. And there are three emotions you can see, each with their own place in story of Penn State’s season.

The first is the feeling of what if?

On the wall next to a large yellow sign that reads “Believe” is a detailed summary of Texas’ roster. Beneath those two things is assistant coach Mike Farrelly, sitting on the floor, staring off into the distance, occasionally running his hand though his buzzcut hair. Farrelly was in charge of Penn State’s scouting report of Texas, and while the Nittany Lions’ defeat was not a product of a poorly prepared team, Farrelly represents the never ending curiosity of a coach who wonders if he could have done more? Could they have been more prepared? Could they have done something different?

The truth of the matter is likely not. If anything, Penn State was doomed at the start by the lack of a truly established big man, and even then the presence of one may have not been enough to stop an elite performance by Texas’ Dylan Disu, who poured in a clinical 28 points. There was always going to come a time when Penn State’s weakness would be its downfall for good, and Saturday night was that final moment with a 71-66 loss to the Longhorns in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Across the room from Farrelly is Andrew Funk, a few days removed from his blistering-hot shooting performance against Texas A&M, now saddled with three separate misses from beyond the arc in the final minutes of regulation that could have helped turn defeat into victory. Intellectually, Funk knows that Penn State lost for a variety of reasons, and while he may have been a part of that equation, he understands that failure is often far more nuanced. As Robin Williams said in “Good Will Hunting,” it’s not your fault.

Nevertheless, the what if persists. Funk is the representation of a player’s remorse, and the curiosity of what might have happened if a ball had bounced left instead of right, if a shot had a little less spin or a slightly better tempo. The what if of inches.

“It sucks,” Funk said. “You feel like you let people down to be honest with you. But I know I gave everything I had to this team and this program like everybody else did. Obviously you wish they would have gone in. But you know there are always some other plays you wish you could make up as well. They’re a talented team, well coached, but obviously you wish that a couple more of them would have gone in.”

What if is the cousin of defeat, an uninvited guest to every locker room from time to time. How long it stays is the only thing that changes.

The next emotion is the sadness of the end.

Myles Dread is a few seats down from Funk. His eyes are red, his face damp. Dread has played more games in a Penn State uniform than anyone in program history. He has seen three head coaches, dozens of teammates, hundreds of made shots and hundreds of missed ones. Dread is the embodiment of grinding out a college career, but there is an uncertainty of what is next, and a finality of what was.

“I’m just thankful for the people who took a chance on me,” Dread said through deep breaths, listing the coaches and assistants he has worked with while at Penn State. “I’m thankful for them building me to be the man and player that I am today.”

Dread is the extreme version of this sense of ending, but the brotherhood of college basketball is unquestionable. Losing may hurt a team because a season has ended, but it’s the chemistry and sense of family ending that can break the heart. In some respects Dread is able to stomach the idea that his season has ended, but it’s knowing his time is up that shatters the soul. No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he will never play with this team again. That is true for each and every player on the roster, a fact they must digest and make peace with. In a sense, losing is the end of a family as much as it is the ending of a season.

The final emotion is celebration, a confusing one to grapple with in the moment.

But Penn State big man Michael Henn is on a ladder just around the corner from Dread. There are NCAA Tournament graphics on the walls above the lockers and he would like to take one home. In the meanwhile, Chief of Staff Nick Colella is passing out the name plates each player had above their lockers to make sure everyone has something to take with them. Because for all of the pain and all of sadness and all of the disappointment, this team did something historic. It won — a lot (23 games, the fourth most in school history). It played well, and it played well more often than it did anything else. It lost, but it lost to one of the best teams in a massive tournament and it did so while nearly pulling victory from the jaws of defeat, coming back to take the lead with under five minutes remaining before succumbing to one final Texas run.

“The way that we did fight in the end and the way that we did come back against again really good and talented Texas team that’s been phenomenal all year makes me very proud of this group,” Funk said.

In the bigger picture you have to turn to Associate Head Coach Adam Fisher, who spent the better part of the last decade at Miami fighting in the NCAA Tournament and eventually finding the nearly unavoidable failure of losing. In that time you learn to grapple with defeat. Maybe you never look it in the eye while you’re still playing, because of course the wonderful thing about sports is that anything can happen. Penn State stood in the tunnel and watched Arkansas upset No. 1 seeded Kansas. Everyone is beatable and believing that you will lose is the step to ensuring that it will happen.

Nevertheless, it is hard to feel success as you digest failure. The skill is finding a way to flush out the sadness and remember what was actually accomplished. In many ways, success is having a season worth being sad over when it finally ends.

“This was a special group,” Fisher said. “Especially in the last five, six weeks of the season. You hope you get through the pain and the hurt, but it shows that they care and it shows that they love each other in this locker room. It’s truly something special. I think once you get through that hurt you’ve got to enjoy and remember the greatness that was this year. Again, nobody wants to lose. There’s only one team at the end but I’m so proud of this group and what they accomplished.”

That will be the challenge in the coming days and weeks for this group as they drift off into their respective sunsets. Penn State put together a historic season — only the 12th with 20+ wins in program history and an NCAA tourney victory for the first time in 22 years — and while it is true that the win was there to be had, it is also true that the Nittany Lions had already done so much and already had so much to hang their hats on.

All the same, as the Nittany Lions piled into its bus and headed towards the airport for a late night trip back to State College, they would do so with tears of both sadness and celebration. The struggle of finding happiness in failure.