Penn State's senior class on Wednesday started and finished a game together for the first time in their careers. Later, as the group took photos and celebrated an 84-65 victory over Minnesota, senior Jamari Wheeler noted how they will finish 1-0 together as starters.
"It meant the world to me just to be out there on the court with them and share the moment with them," Wheeler said. "That will be a moment we will never forget."
Penn State (9-13) has endured an exhausting, and at times cruel, basketball season, one that began with their coach's resignation, was halted by a COVID-19 stoppage and included seven losses by six points or less. Also, they were subjected to playing against the Big Ten's best collection of teams in history.
As a result, interim coach Jim Ferry has worn blinders to the outside world, urging his players to commit only to the next game and not to what's next for the program. That most likely will include a new head coach sometime this month. Among the candidates being mentioned is Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry, whose team lit up the Lions 73-52 on Feb. 26.
So before the Minnesota game, Ferry wrote the word "Respond" on the team's dry-erase board in the locker room as a reminder of that loss. The Lions responded in a most satisfying way.
John Harrar (12 points, 11 rebounds) had his fifth double-double of the season. Trent Buttrick scored a season-high 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting. Wheeler had 10 points and five assists.
After starting the game together, Penn State's five seniors (including Taylor Nussbaum and Kyle McCloskey) finished it together as well. Ferry re-inserted all five seniors late, allowing them personal farewell moments at the Bryce Jordan Center.
And Penn State punctuated the victory with a Wheeler-to-Buttrick pass that ended with an emphatic dunk late in the game. It marked the last basket Penn State scored at home this season. Afterward, Harrar and Wheeler, who are roommates, left the floor together.
Perhaps the dunk also marked the end of a chapter for Penn State basketball. This team could be very different next season, with a new coaching staff, players potentially transferring out and a few others portaling into the program.
Though he tried to avoid it, Ferry couldn't help but get wistful. He teared up at the pregame Senior Night ceremony, which family members were able to attend. Ferry almost teared up again when he reunited the seniors for their victory lap late in the game.
"It's the way it's supposed to end," Ferry said.
Penn State will visit Maryland on Sunday in its regular-season finale before playing in the Big Ten tournament. The Lions have won two of their last three games and hope to enter the tournament with a shot of adrenaline.
Ferry said he could see that happening. "We had a dud [Feb.26] against Purdue, and we all challenged each other to make sure that's now how we're going out," the coach said.
Then, asked whether he believes in momentum, Ferry smiled.
"I do today," he said.
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