'Fantastic ride' ends for Purdue's Gearlds, Lawless

DALLAS -- Still with a remnants of a shiner, Purdue's Katie Gearlds looked a little like an exhausted boxer who went 15 rounds and lost by decision. She apologized in advance for crying through all her answers.

No need for apologies. An 84-72 regional-final loss was a hard ending for both Gearlds and fellow senior Erin Lawless. Falling in the Elite Eight leaves players with that empty, "We were almost there," feeling about the Holy Grail of the Final Four.

But there's a lot to be said for leaving everything on the floor, and there no doubt Gearlds (28 points) and Lawless (10, while battling the relentless Tar Heels inside) did that.

"We battled; no one probably gave us a chance tonight," Gearlds said. "It's satisfying because I felt like I laid my heart out there. That's easy to do when you feel like all your teammates and coaches are doing the same thing. But as a competitor, I still wish I could have done more."

Consider the turmoil that Gearlds and Lawless went through in the past year. Coach Kristy Curry left last spring after seven seasons to take over at Texas Tech. And Gearlds, especially, was very close to Curry and her family.

Purdue reported six violations to the NCAA. Guard Cherelle George was removed from the team because of alleged academic misconduct. A feud between former assistants Katrina Merriweather and Jannon Roland Lampley became public. Then the players had to adjust to new coach Sharon Versyp.

"Winning is not easy when a new staff comes in, especially when you're seniors," Versyp said of Gearlds and Lawless. "To handle that type of change -- I think they handled it better than anyone could probably imagine."

The Boilermakers finished the season 31-6, won the Big Ten tournament title and made the Elite Eight.

"It's been a fantastic four years," Lawless said. "As much as this hurts right now, this is the furthest Katie and I have gone in our careers. It's been a fantastic ride for both of us."

Gearlds played very well in the NCAA Tournament and may well have improved her positioning in the WNBA draft.

"Now, it's time to grow up and hit the real world," Gearlds said. "Purdue has made me a better person, a stronger person. I feel I've grown and matured, especially this past year. Handling certain things I never thought I'd have to handle. This is going to hurt for a while, but I'll take a step back in the next couple of days and be ready to move on. I have a good feeling that Erin and I will be successful with whatever we do."

And Purdue's cupboard is not bare. Guards FahKara Malone (freshman) and Jodi Howell (sophomore) started all season and got tons of experience. Junior Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton is one of the top post players in the country and will be the team's leader next season.

"I'm going to miss them with all my heart; it's going to be hard not to play with them anymore," Wisdom-Hylton said of Gearlds and Lawless. "But next year, I'm going to help lead our other players. We're going to be back in the tournament and keep doing what we can do."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.