UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's return to the Top 25 after a five-year absence will be short-lived because of Thursday's loss, but there's no doubt third-year head coach Coquese Washington has the program heading in the right direction.
Just how bad were things at PSU before Washington took over? During the final year of Rene Portland's tenure, the Lady Lions lost a game at St. Francis. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, it was a dreadful Red Flash team that finished 7-22.
Portland left the proud Lady Lion program in dismal shape and bolted from town - pretty much never to be heard from again - after an embarrassing legal drama concerning a lesbian former player.
Washington faced the difficult task of cleaning up the mess, and she has done a fantastic job so far.
The Lady Lions (15-5) already have more wins than they did all of last season (11), and they're alone in second place in the Big Ten at 7-3.
They dropped a nailbiter Thursday in overtime to Purdue, 80-76, but even in defeat it was easy to recognize how much progress has been made.
Washington's team, ranked 23rd, trailed 62-53 with 5:25 to go before storming back and forcing overtime. She said she "absolutely did" have confidence her squad could rally in the closing minutes.
"I'm very positive and optimistic," Washington said. "I think I could fly to the moon if I so chose to do so tomorrow. So I always think we have a chance to win until mathematically it's impossible. It's just a matter of the players feeling that at the same time."
The players do feel that this season, thanks to a six-game winning streak entering Thursday and a pair of victories over Top 25 teams.
"The growth that we've shown over the course of the three years that we've been here - and even though last year it didn't necessarily show up in wins and losses - but the confidence in themselves and the competitiveness and the competitive fire that's necessary to have these kinds of comebacks has been growing and brewing in the kids," Washington said.
The Lady Lions, who were 15-16 during Portland's final season in 2006-07, won 13 games in Washington's first year before posting an 11-18 mark last season. As fourth-year Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said, it takes time to implement a system and build a culture within a program.
The culture surrounding PSU women's basketball was toxic at the end of the Portland era, but Washington has changed things as quickly as anyone could have hoped.
This year's squad is led by senior guard Tyra Grant, one of the best players in the Big Ten, and Washington added a strong freshman class led by the program's next standout, point guard Alex Bentley.
"Once we leave, it was our job as the seniors to leave some stability, a little foundation for Alex and Nikki [Greene] and Marisa [Wolfe] to grow from," Grant said. "I feel like we're doing that. ... They'll be able to take over, so no worries."
Washington surely knows the program has made huge strides this season, even if she won't let herself enjoy it or the national ranking.
"No, we don't feel like we've arrived," she said. "We don't practice to be ranked. We practice to win our conference. ... I don't care if we drop out the rankings. I don't care about any of that stuff. I care about us getting better."
With a strong finish, the Lady Lions will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. Furthermore, with a star like Bentley (27 points Thursday) leading the way, there's reason to believe Penn State will remain a force in the Big Ten for years to come.
It took Washington only three years to get this far, so Lady Lion fans have to be excited about what she can accomplish now that the program is back on a solid foundation.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.