Photo by USF Athletics.
The increasingly short-handed San Francisco Dons fell to the Loyola Marymount Lions 58-55 in a game that was decided with under 10 seconds left. Not only was it a difficult way for USF to end the WCC regular season, but also a difficult way for senior Mel Khlok to end her career.
It's probably safe to say that San Francisco Dons senior Mel Khlok didn't go out to the ovation she wanted on senior day at War Memorial Gym, either as she imagined it in anticipation of the game or when she headed into halftime with her team up 33-22.
With seven seconds left and USF down 56-55 to the Loyola Marymount Lions, Khlok was forced to commit her fifth and final foul after losing the ball under her own basket. Not only did the Dons lose their leading scorer on the season, but it also reduced their number of players available to just five: after starting the day with just seven active players due to a combination of injuries and family tragedy, they were down to six with starting freshman and leading rebounder Taylor Proctor went down with an injury.
Had USF somehow managed to advance the ball upcourt to hit a three without the luxury of a timeout after LMU hit the ensuing free throws, they would've gone into overtime exhausted, short-handed, and bearing the weight of knowing that they had blown a lead that would've helped them notch among the most memorable home wins in recent program history.
Unfortunately, they struggled to get the ball even to halfcourt on the inbounds and sophomore Taj Winston's contested desperation heave fell well short leaving the Dons with the bitter taste of a 58-55 loss in their final regular season game.
As Khlok left the floor at War Memorial Gym for the final time after fouling out today, the exuberant season-high crowd of 566 gave her a well-deserved ovation to celebrate not only an impressive effort and season under difficult circumstances but also the end of a career.
And as disappointing a loss and end to a career as it must have been, it was actually a fitting way for the senior to go out: she never quit, never hung her head after mistakes on a team that rarely approached mistake-free ball, and she made exactly the right play to give her team the best possible chance to win even if they faced long odds.
"I felt bad for her, I did - it's not the way you want to go out as a senior," said Mary Hile-Nepfel, the winningest coach of the women's basketball program and the all-time leading scorer at USF, male or female, who was in attendance in part due to a special halftime Title IX ceremony. "But the thing with Mel that has impressed me from the time that she was a freshman to now is how much she has matured, how much she has become a leader on this team and how much she has given of herself.
"So...I felt bad that she fouled out, but she fouled out doing the right thing: she was in the position where that's what she needed to do and she made the sacrifice for the team. And I think that that's a compliment to her."
And it's really only possible to appreciate the magnitude of that moment when taking the context of Khlok's career into account - as explained during the senior day ceremony prior to the game, her career began anew when she rejoined the team in 2010 to play for novice coach Jennifer Azzi after quitting the team the previous year.
When national attention did come to USF in 2010 in what was more of a ceremony to celebrate Tara VanDerveer's 800th win with former player Azzi on hand and the basketball game almost serving as an undercard to the inevitable, Khlok got off the bench for just four minutes in a 55-point loss. Last year, Khlok began to emerge as a complement to top scorer Rheina Ale while showing flashes of brilliance in a major upset over BYU in Provo and with a game-winning shot against St. Mary's.
When she was finally given the reigns of the team this year, she shined and yet refused to ever take any personal credit. All season, Khlok has been content to share the spotlight and the ball with younger teammates with potential and fellow upperclassmen who struggled to make a consistent impact on the floor. And now she has gone from a high school post player to WCC Player of the Month this past December to the most efficient starter in the WCC at any position and top five in the conference in assists, points, 3-point shooting, and steals while playing the most minutes of any player.
To Be A Don - Mel Khlok (via USFDonsAthletics)
This is a player who has worked tirelessly for absolutely everything she's gotten in almost total obscurity, even among her WCC peers - although a strong candidate for All-Conference honors, if not a lock, she was left off the conference's Player of the Year ballot despite her impressive profile and almost certainly because she couldn't carry her team any higher than eighth in the standings.
If anyone deserved a senior day win as a reward for all she has given to the program - particularly with this weary team with more players unavailable than active as she walked off the court that last time - it was Khlok.
The idea of a moral victory at this point in a season and a career likely would have rang hollow in the USF lockerroom after a loss like that - at 4-12 in conference play, the Dons finish the regular season eighth in conference play and just one win shy of matching their most conference wins since the 2007-08 albeit the most in the Azzi era. For all that heart and effort on display in today's game, USF gets a spot in the WCC's play-in game for a re-matcWh with the Pepperdine Waves with the winner getting the fifth-seeded Lions.
Nevertheless, the effort hasn't been lost on USF's WCC peers.
"They played tremendous today," said first year LMU coach Charity Elliott after the game. "The kids are playing hard. And they played a very short bench tonight and they gave us all we wanted and more."
There's really not much time or purpose to what-if's at this point, even if they naturally seep into one's consciousness after a game that went from halftime lead to one possession loss. The regular season is done and the last chance for redemption awaits in Las Vegas at the WCC tournament.
Whatever the outcome in Vegas, Khlok can leave the program knowing that she contributed to building a budding legacy that will have plenty more ups and downs before they achieve all they want.
But that doesn't make the loss any less heartbreaking.
For more on the Dons' season, visit our WCC section.