NEW YORK – Penn State was almost unbeatable at home this season, its only three losses to teams that made the NCAA tournament.
So when coach Ed DeChellis walked into Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night and saw white-clad Nittany Lions fans almost to the rafters, already roaring well before their game against Notre Dame, he had a feeling something good was about to happen.
Talor Battle scored 17 points, Andrew Jones had career highs of 16 points and 15 rebounds, and Penn State hung on after squandering a big lead in a 67-59 victory over the Irish, putting the Nittany Lions in the NIT championship game.
“It was great,” Battle said. “It felt like a home game.”
Jamelle Cornley added 15 points and Stanley Pringle had 10 for Penn State (26-11), which set a school record for wins in a season and will play Baylor for the title Thursday night.
“This was the goal we had when things didn’t go our way on Sunday night,” DeChellis said, referring to selection Sunday, when Penn State was one of the last teams left on the bubble.
“I said, ’We have a chance to win a championship of a national tournament. We have a chance to do something Penn State has never done before.”’
The sound resonating through the Garden was only amplified when football coach Joe Paterno ambled to his seat a few rows behind the Penn State bench, the 82-year-old icon walking without the aid of a cane.
“We’ve had great home crowds and this has excited them, and again, to have an opportunity to come to New York and play here in the greatest arena for college basketball and pro basketball — it’s fun for them,” DeChellis said. “We had coach here tonight, too.”
Penn State beat one of its former gridiron rivals at Notre Dame’s own game, relentlessly pounding Luke Harangody inside and harassing sharpshooter Kyle McAlarney whenever he touched the ball on the perimeter.
McAlarney finished 3-for-12 from the field and had nine points, hitting just one 3-pointer.
Harangody, a second-team All-American, finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but was 5-of-16 from the field. The bruising forward is expected to decide in the next couple weeks whether to declare for the NBA draft, and got a pat on the chest and a few encouraging words from coach Mike Brey when he left the game for good with about 40 seconds to go.
“The game plan was to push him as far as we could,” Jones said. “We knew we couldn’t help on shooters like McAlarney and (Ryan) Ayers, so we had to go at him really hard. I just kept moving my feet, trying to contest his shots, and they didn’t fall today.”
Baylor 76, San Diego State 62
Curtis Jerrells scored 25 points and LaceDarius Dunn had 23, leading the once-downtrodden Bears into the championship game.
Kevin Rogers added 15 points for Baylor (24-14), which has won seven of its last eight games and matched the 1947-48 team that lost in the national championship game for the second-most wins in school history.
The Bears made their first trip to New York since losing in the third-place game of the 1950 Final Four.
Kyle Spain scored 15 points to lead San Diego State (26-10), which long ago set a school record for wins in a season. The only No. 1 seed remaining won more games in this tournament than it had in its previous nine postseason appearances combined.