Penn State players celebrate after beating Baylor 69-63 in the NIT championship Thursday in New York.AP photo
NEW YORK – Playing in the nation’s oldest basketball tournament in the country’s most historic arena, Penn State made some history of its own.
Encouraged by thousands of white-wearing Nittany Lion fans, senior captain Jamelle Cornley scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds as Penn State captured the program’s first National Invitation Tournament with a 69-63 win against Baylor on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Sophomore Talor Battle added 12 points and seven rebounds for Penn State, while senior Stanley Pringle and junior David Jackson finished with 10 points apiece.
“This team was as committed as any other team I’ve ever had, more committed,” said Penn State coach Ed DeChellis. “They wanted to win a championship. They wanted to do something special. We were disappointed a few weeks ago by not being selected to the (NCAA) tournament. But our kids put that behind us right away and our goal was to come in win this thing.”
Following the game, Cornley and Battle shared a long embrace at midcourt and smiled as the Penn State pep band played the school’s fight song. The scene was a stark contrast to the sight of a somber Battle and Cornley at a press conference the day after the Lions weren’t selected to play in the NCAA tournament.
“You really don’t know what it’s going to be like when you go into (a championship game),” said Cornley, who scored 35 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the two NIT games and was named the tournament MVP. “The last time I cut down the net was my freshman year of high school. Now, cutting down some more nets, that’s a good thing.”
Trailing 29-25 entering the second half, Penn State picked up its defensive intensity in the final 20 minutes. And, after muddling through a seven-minute stretch in the first half without a field goal, the Lions started scoring against Baylor’s 2-3 zone defense.
Midway through the second half, Penn State connected on 6-of-7 field goals, part of a 13-3 run that gave the Lions their biggest lead of the game, 50-40, with 8:17 remaining.
Senior guard Danny Morrissey nailed a pair of three-pointers during the run. He left the game a few minutes later after smacking his face off the court while diving for a loose ball. He was taken into the medical office, but returned to cut down the nets with his teammates.
“My face has looked better,” said the Cleveland, Ohio, native while sporting a fat lip and partially swollen face. “I thought coming into the game I might be able to get some opportunities to do some nice things against the zone. This was my last game at Penn State. I was playing as hard as I could.”
Baylor created a few slightly-anxious moments for Penn State fans late in the game, hitting a couple of three-pointers. LaceDarius Dunn’s basket pulled the Bears within 66-60 with 43 seconds remaining, but Baylor could never get closer. Dunn finished with 18 points for the Bears, while Curtis Jerrells and Tweety Carter added 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said his team was physically outplayed by the Lions.
“The last game of the year…you expect teams to lay it on the line, so we expected a physical game. We were prepared for it. We’ve gotten more physical, but we’re just not a physical team yet. In the future that’s what our goal is going to be, more physical.”
Instead of taking outside jumpers, Penn State attacked Baylor’s zone defense early by getting the ball to Cornley in the high post. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound brute forced his way inside for some easy baskets, scoring 10 points in the first half.
“Cornley set the tempo early by being able to score,” said Drew. “He did a great job of getting the ball to the basket. He’s a load inside.”
In addition to the NIT trophy, Cornley, Pringle, Morrissey and fellow senior Will Lenier are leaving their collegiate careers with the most wins in a season for a Penn State team.
Morrissey and Cornley said the 33 student buses that made the four-hour trip from State College to New York City show how far the program has gotten.
“I think there were 50 students at my first home game,” said Morrissey.
“To see the program grow and to see where it is now, and to leave on such a great note, I think this seals the deal for me,” added Cornley, the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer. “I can honestly say that I’ve given everything that I have to the program. I think my fellow seniors can say the same thing.”