- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The NCAA tournament isn't sentimental. It's thrilling precisely because it's ruthless, an unfeeling entity that exists not to reward the valiant or the deserving but simply the team that scores more points.
If you want a happy ending, you have to go out and write it yourself. And DePaul junior Keisha Hampton wrote one for her seniors Monday night.
In each of the 62 games that precede the tournament championship, both careers end and seasons continue on the same court, a reality made all the more harsh when the outcome is in doubt until the final seconds tick off the clock. And while each game is part of a pursuit for the championship, that chase is not what often captures the imagination. The smile spread across DePaul senior Sam Quigley's face and the sorrow shown in Penn State senior Julia Trogele's in the aftermath of Monday's second-round game between No. 3 seed DePaul and sixth-seeded Penn State showed emotions that had something to do with what will happen in Indianapolis at the Final Four in the days ahead.
But they had much more to do with something more elemental: At this time of year, you play to keep playing.
So when Hampton was fouled attempting a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds remaining and the score tied at 73, there was something on the junior's mind beyond personal glory or the din of a hostile crowd in Penn State's gym.
"When I got to the free-throw line after my last shot," Hampton said, "another thought that went through my head was I have five seniors. I couldn't let their season end like this. Just make these shots for them.
"I want to play on, but I want them to play on, too."
Hampton made two out of three from the line, and when Penn State couldn't get a good look at the basket before time ran out, DePaul's seniors earned a chance to play another 40 minutes of basketball on a night when such good fortune often seemed unlikely. Down nine points at halftime, as many as 14 points in the second half and seven points with five minutes to play, the Blue Demons closed on a 15-6 run to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2006.
"You think about how long 10 minutes is in basketball, and it's so long -- anything can happen in a second," Quigley said of one point at which she caught herself checking the scoreboard. "I felt like we could come back at any point. We just had to stay strong, and knowing that it's one-and-done and you go home, there's so much more to play for.
"You're playing so much harder on defense and trying to score so much harder because you know what the outcome might be."
Especially what it might be when you have a player emerging as a superstar before your eyes. Hampton finished with 26 points, including 19 points after halftime. She hit three shots from behind the 3-point line -- the men's 3-point line -- in the second half, each the calm, cool and collected pull-up release of a 6-foot-2 player who doesn't live behind the arc but doesn't mind vacationing there. She was a decent 3-point shooter in each of her first two seasons in Chicago, shooting 32 percent as a freshman and 33 percent as a sophomore and averaging less than one make per game. But after an offseason spent honing the shot, putting up hundreds of shots a day in an otherwise empty gym, she is now a force from long range, a 36 percent shooter who averages almost two makes per game.
"I knew that I had to expand my game," Hampton said. "I was always a player that could shoot the 3, but how well could I shoot it? I feel like this year I'm shooting it pretty well with a lot of confidence."
The comeback was not a one-woman show. DePaul collectively dug itself a hole in the first half, missing 16 of 19 shots from the 3-point line and shooting 29 percent overall through the first 20 minutes. And it began to dig its way out of the hole as a group. Felicia Chester, one of the team's five fifth- or sixth-year seniors, established herself in the post, scoring 10 second-half points and providing some stability as the perimeter misses piled up. Anna Martin, a guard who entered the game with 30 offensive rebounds in 34 games, totaled four offensive rebounds in the second half. China Threatt, another of the seniors who averaged 15 minutes a game, played 18 second-half minutes and hit all three of her shots, including a jumper to tie the score at 73 with 40 seconds remaining when the Blue Demons couldn't get the ball to Hampton. Her shot answered a circus shot from Penn State freshman Maggie Lucas on the other end that felt for all the world like a building block in her Lady Lions lore. And Quigley, perhaps the smallest player on the court, corralled the defensive rebound with 20 seconds left that set up Hampton's opportunity.
As sophomore Katherine Harry said, "Anybody on the team can be a go-to player." But nobody seems quite as born for the role as Hampton. She's the one who demanded the ball late in the game, and she's the one who came up with a huge block against Penn State standout Alex Bentley with two minutes to play to keep it a one-possession game, living up to the defensive role that coach Doug Bruno challenged her to fill when she arrived as a freshman.
"Keish, from her freshman year to now, she's grown a lot," Threatt said. "The shots that she takes now, her body's more organized, she's more aware where her defender is while guarding her. She's just coming in to being a great player, and by next year, Keish will probably be, if not the player of the year, the player of the Big East, hopefully."
The flip side of DePaul's joy was Penn State's pain, a game seemingly in hand for much of the night that slipped away, not so much because of mistakes as an opponent making big plays. For Trogele, that meant the end of a career that began with Penn State coach Coquese Washington's first season and all of the emotions that DePaul's seniors escaped. But led by sophomore Alex Bentley, who starred on the postseason stage for the second game in a row, and Lucas, who showed the resilience to hit a huge shot at the end of an otherwise long night, the Lady Lions have a lot of basketball ahead of them -- and a lot of March basketball.
Perhaps that explained the perspective Washington was able to offer in defeat.
"This was one of the most fun basketball games I've ever been a part of," Washington said in a voice that nonetheless left no doubt that the fun brought no joy and only a little solace at that moment. "It was a great environment, two very good teams playing their hearts out, and it comes down to the last second."
Seconds between a third consecutive heartbreaking tournament exit for DePaul, which lost to Vanderbilt in overtime in the first round last season and San Diego State by six points in the first round in 2009, and redemption of the basketball variety. The Blue Demons deserved that much, deserved it for all the hours of practice, all the hours of injury rehabilitation and all the success of the winningest season in program history.
But the only way to get a happy ending in March is by writing it yourself. Good players make big plays if you get them the ball in the right place. Great players make big plays if you get them the ball.
"I feel like coach wanted the ball in my hands, and if he wanted the ball in my hands, he has confidence in me to make a play and I have to have the confidence in myself," Hampton said. "This game, he put the ball in my hand and I made a play."
And as a result, one very happy group of Blue Demons gets to play another game.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.