Handed a recipe for disaster, Sandy Thomas never expected to cook up a season to remember.
Her IUP women’s basketball team lost three key players to season-ending injuries, was forced to rely heavily on four freshmen, and started 0-3 in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference play. Prospects were as bleak as Fargo in February.
But a team seemingly headed for oblivion headed to the playoffs instead. The Indians won ten of eleven games in one stretch, climbed from last place to second in the PSAC West, advanced to the conference semifinals, and finished with a 19-9 record. Only two teams in the program’s history won more games.
“I never would’ve thought we’d come this far this year,” said Thomas. “I think this team had a pretty miraculous year, considering some of the injuries and such.”
Coach Sandy Thomas, left, and Sarah Zdesar
Miraculous certainly describes the turn of events that righted IUP’s listing ship. The Indians came within a half-second of falling to 0-4 in the conference, the amount of time left when Clarion’s Allison Stodart nailed a three-pointer to apparently seal a 77-75 victory. But when the Eagles poured onto the floor in celebration—a premature celebration, given that IUP was just then inbounding the ball—they were assessed a technical foul for having too many players on the court. Junior Jess Conner coolly canned both free throws to send the game into overtime.
The Indians ultimately prevailed, 95-92, despite having three freshmen on the floor and three starters on the bench, victims of foul trouble. A team filled with doubts suddenly became a team filled with confidence.
“That game was definitely our turning point,” said center Sarah Zdesar, the team’s only senior. “If we’d lost and dropped to 0-4, we probably would’ve kicked the bucket. But when we won, we kind of came together.”
Two other victories exemplified the indomitable spirit that made IUP virtually unbeatable down the stretch. In the first, the Indians beat Edinboro, 72-66, after battling back from a fourteen-point deficit, an uphill climb that left them emotionally and physically spent.
“Our whole team just gave it every last ounce of strength we had,” Zdesar said. “It was such an up-tempo, leave-your-guts-on-the-floor game that when the buzzer went off all I could say was ‘Thank God it’s over.’ I could’ve probably dropped on the floor. I had nothing else to give.”
Zdesar barely had the energy to celebrate with her teammates.
“That was a game Sarah really showed her true colors, because that girl was exhausted,” Thomas said. “She reminded me of the game that Michael Jordan played when he had the flu and fell into Scottie Pippin’s arms at the end.”
IUP also overcame a daunting deficit at Shippensburg. Despite trailing by fifteen at one point and by ten with four minutes left, the Indians roared back and won, 65-64, on junior forward Jacqui Martin’s bucket with thirteen seconds remaining.
“I attribute the way we won some of those games to the work ethic and determination of our team and a never-say-die attitude,” Thomas said. “I heard a saying during the NCAA women’s tournament that the will has to be more than the skill. I think my team’s will this year was hard to beat.”
Zdesar personified that resolve by figuratively hoisting her teammates onto her shoulders and carrying them at times. She averaged 17.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game to become the first woman in IUP history to average double figures in both categories in back-to-back seasons, earned All-PSAC West first-team honors, and was named to the Daktronics Division II East Region first team.
What’s more, Zdesar’s leadership was critical, especially in the wake of season-ending injuries to juniors Jordin Schaffner, Courtnay Rattigan, and Lauren Canavan. She and Martin, who averaged 16.4 points per game, shepherded IUP’s flock of freshmen through the PSAC West gauntlet. Mame Brumbaugh, Abbey Moore, Kara Taylor, and Julie Gallo grew up in a hurry and made significant contributions to IUP’s success. All four started at various times.
“Our freshmen matured and got better throughout the season,” said Zdesar. “It was like night and day from the first game to the last game. They really did step up.”
Of course, the rookies had to look no further than Zdesar for an example of a player who regularly rose to the challenge. Take, for example, her stellar performance in the PSAC playoffs. Zdesar helped the Indians bury Edinboro, 86-59, with thirty-two points and nineteen rebounds and then tallied twenty-one points and eighteen rebounds in a 67-64 semifinal loss to West Chester.
“Sarah Zdesar was the heart and soul of this basketball team,” Thomas said. “She just gave a gigantic effort. When that last game was over, what hit me first was ‘Sarah’s done.’ I told the team afterward that I felt sadder about losing Sarah Zdesar than I did about losing the game.”
After all, it was Zdesar who carried the Indians farther than anyone had dreamed possible. She was the key ingredient that enabled IUP to turn a recipe for disaster into a season to remember.