NIT Semifinals: Penn State throws a Garden party, shuts down Notre Dame
After advancing to the NIT championship game, the Penn State Nittany Lions find themselves in a New York state of mind.
With Nittany Nation packing the house at Madison Square Garden, Coach Ed DeChellis's inspired ballclub fed off an electric crowd to dump Notre Dame, 67-59, in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The victory carries PSU to Thursday night's title fight against Baylor, who rolled past San Diego State in Tuesday's other semifinal.
The keys to this 26th win of the season--which makes the 2009 Lions the winningest team in PSU basketball history--were very simple: In short, the boys from Happy Valley executed their game plan to near-perfection in all aspects of competition.
Penn State needed to contain Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, and that's exactly what the Blue and White did. Harangody scored 17 points to lead all scorers for the Irish, but those points came on 16 shots and many difficult offensive possessions. Andrew Jones III and Jamelle Cornley made Harangody work for the baskets he created, and that's more than half the battle against Mike Brey's bunch from South Bend.
The Nittany Lions also needed to clamp down on the formidable 3-point shooters on the Fighting Irish roster. Mission accomplished there, too. Notre Dame sniper Kyle McAlarney hit only one triple in a disappointing 9-point performance marked by 3-of-12 shooting. Penn State's defensive rotations were crisp and attentive, unlike the San Diego State team that lost track of Baylor's long-range gunners earlier in the evening.
Another item on the DeChellis checklist was to continue to receive balanced production in a blended offensive attack. Once again, Penn State hit its target. Jones--in addition to holding down Harangody in the paint--scored 16 points and pulled down 15 boards in a terrific all-around performance. He was joined by three other double-figure scorers--Cornley with 15 points, Talor Battle with 17, and Stanley Pringle with 10--who collectively made Penn State difficult for the Irish to defend.
With the exception of a 17-4 Notre Dame run late in the second half, Penn State clearly and decisively outplayed the Irish. The Lions were generally tougher; sharper with their defensive coverage; superior in their dribble penetration; and more effective at getting to the free throw line. From start to finish, Penn State easily established its style of play, leaving Notre Dame with few openings or options. A little drama entered the world's most famous arena when the Irish got within four points, at 51-47, with a little more than four minutes remaining in regulation, but after Cornley--in a play reminiscent of the NIT quarterfinal win at Florida--scored a tough basket in the low post, the Notre Dame rally finally fizzled.
Beyond the on-court keys to this contest, a reference to the Madison Square Garden crowd has to be included in a summation of this second semifinal. Whereas the Baylor-San Diego State clash unfolded before thousands of empty seats in a largely dead building, the Penn State-Notre Dame game possessed a genuinely electric feel.
Cameras flashed during and after the action, and plenty of Penn State football jerseys--in home blues and road whites--could be seen on the ESPN2 broadcast. None other than Joe Paterno held court with TV analyst Bill Raftery during the first half, and then received wild applause when he was shown on the video screen for much of the second half. From JoePa to the football jerseys to the sheer numbers of fans who traveled from State College to New York earlier in the day, the whole environment surrounding this basketball battle created the feel of "Bryce Jordan East." Technically, Penn State was the home team because of a higher seed in the NIT's bracketing system (PSU and Notre Dame were both No. 2 seeds in their subregionals; evidently, the Lions were a stronger second seed), but even if the Lions had worn their road blue basketball jerseys, they'd have been the favored ballclub in the Big Apple.
And so, before talking about Thursday's throwdown with Baylor (which we'll do tomorrow), it's worth reflecting on the meaning of this knockout against Notre Dame.
Based on the response this game received from the Nittany Nation, the Penn State hoops program should do what it can to schedule major intersectional games in New York against top-flight teams. After being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee because of a soft non-conference slate, Penn State can now pony up for neutral-court showdowns against big names in the basketball world. Notice the term "neutral court"--it would be the technically correct designation for almost any game Penn State plays in Madison Square Garden (other than St. John's, of course), but if Pennsylvanians flock to this basketball mecca the same way they did for Tuesday's tilt against the Fighting Irish, Penn State's "neutral" games will feel just like home. Such a reality won't just increase the program's level of exposure on a national scale; it will help Penn State win a significant non-conference basketball game at some point.
It was said going into the NIT semifinals that Penn State's NCAA miss had become a major opportunity for growth and improvement. Yes, the Lions will want to win a championship when they take on Baylor on April 2, but in all candor, the phenomenal scene created by a sensational semifinal experience has already done enough to make this trip to New York a success. If any recruit had an eyeball on this big-time basketball showcase in Madison Square Garden, he'd find it impossible to view Penn State hoops as a second-rate program.
Nittany Lion basketball just gained a lot of stature. In one magical Garden party, many perceptions of a previously downtrodden program changed 180 degrees.