UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State finally found out that NCAA tournament games can be like this, with fist pumps, numerous high fives, smiles, even laughter. NCAA tournament games can be fun and not pressure-packed until the buzzer sounds on an end that has far too often produced a bad result for Penn State.
The No. 3 seed Lady Lions defeated 11th-seeded Florida, 83-61, Tuesday night in their second-round NCAA tournament game at Bryce Jordan Center. The Lady Lions reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years. The other two times, they lost in the second round.
"I don't think we've had this complete of a game in a while," senior guard Dara Taylor said.
As successful as Penn State has been under coach Coquese Washington, winning three Big Ten Conference regular-season titles in the past three years, tournaments have been trouble. That goes for the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.
Even when Penn State was winning, it wasn't winning easily. Two years ago when Penn State made the Sweet 16, it defeated lower-seeded LSU by just 10 points. Of course, on Sunday, it trailed Wichita State by five at halftime before coming back to win by six.
The worst memory for Penn State of its recent stretch of success came in 2011, the freshman year for seniors Maggie Lucas, Ariel Edwards, Talia East and Taylor. In a second-round game against DePaul at Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State lost in the final seconds.
"You come full-circle your senior year," Washington said. "And you have the same moment."
This time, Penn State helped itself with big runs at the beginning of the game and the second half. The Lady Lions opened on a 17-4 run and forced six turnovers the first eight minutes. They forced only eight turnovers the entire game against Wichita State.
To start the second half, Penn State went on another 17-4 run. Just before the midway point of the half, it led the Gators, 69-41.
"It's definitely nicer to have control of the game rather than it coming down to the wire," Lucas said. "That was just putting together a full game."
The Lady Lions were doing almost exactly what they had planned to do. Lucas said coming into the game that they identified their biggest goals as rebounding and success in transition, the latter being particularly important against a smaller, quicker team like Florida. For the game, Penn State had 33 points off turnovers and 19 in transition.
"I think it's probably the most complete game we've played all season, from the beginning to the end of the game and in terms of focus and what we wanted to do," Washington said. "I'm really proud of our team for being able to do that in this moment and this environment."
Taylor scored a career-high 22 points and Lucas added 22. Edwards had 18 and East had nine. In addition to this being the NCAA tournament, it also was their final home game.
Taylor described the senior send-off as amazing. Lucas was equally enthused, though she noted the feeling was slightly bittersweet because they would never again play at Bryce Jordan Center for Penn State.
The Lady Lions' next opponent is No. 2 Stanford, and as much as they'll miss their home floor, Taylor said the team's goal always was to "get out of State College" and advance in the Stanford Region. With the prospect of a deep tournament run ahead, there's no such thing as bittersweet.
"It's like dark chocolate with caramel-sweet," Washington said.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.