Garden Party: A Night with the NIT Champs
If you weren’t there, I hope you watched the game on TV, or at least saw the highlights (ESPN has a terrific game wrap-up here). If you were at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, you know what a great night it was. In front of what might as well have been a home crowd, Penn State won its first ever postseason championship, beating Baylor 69-63 for the National Invitational Tournament title.
I was not aboard one of the 35 or 36 buses that left State College on Thursday afternoon, but I did make the trip by car. It was well worth it, particularly since I was able to blur the fan/credentialed-media line during the game. In the first half, I sat in my baseline press seat and tried to act like a professional (read: no cheering). Here’s the view from my courtside perch; all those white t-shirts should give you an idea of the terrific fan support. (click for larger view)
At halftime, I hooked up with some friends in the crowd, tucked my credential in my shirt pocket and switched to fan status — I’m not taking sole credit for Penn State turning a four-point halftime deficit into a six-point win, but, you know…
I did keep the camera handy, though — novice photographer that I am, the quality of some of these is dodgy, but you get the idea. Here’s the view from our seats:
Another guy who I assume didn’t take the bus to Manhattan was native New Yorker Joe Paterno. Just as he did during Tuesday’s semifinal, JoePa sat a few rows behind the Penn State bench. He was also the game’s biggest halftime attraction, being mobbed by well-wishers and folks with cameras during the intermission.
The student support was the real story in the stands. Official attendance for Thursday’s final was 10,254, close to 9,000 of whom were cheering on the Nittany Lions. The students who made the trip — and most of them made two SC-to-NY roundtrips in the space of 48 hours — were their usual rowdy selves. Among the most loyal members of Nittany Nation are a bunch of the Paternoville regulars I met while reporting the cover story for our Jan/Feb issue. I saw a few of them Thursday:
I’ve been to hundreds of games at the Garden (in my previous life as an editor at Slam Magazine, it was part of the job), and I don’t ever remember the stands shaking. But last night, when the students bounced to “Zombie Nation,” I found myself worrying about structural integrity. Very cool.
It’s probably impossible to overstate how cool it was to see Jamelle Cornley end his Penn State career with a title. The burly but undersized power forward led the Nittany Lions all season (and, really, throughout much of his career) with his toughness and intensity. After finishing with a game-high 18 points and seven rebounds, he was the obvious and thoroughly deserving choice for tournament MVP:
A couple more low-quality shots of ’Mel, worth including (I thought) to give a sense of just how happy everyone was to see him go out on such a high note. He’ll be missed next season.
Postgame, somebody handed Joe an NIT Champs t-shirts, which he put on over his sports coat. (Bonus points if you can ID the bearded gentleman to Paterno’s left — not too many bonus points, though. This one should be easy.)
Pretty close behind Cornley on the people-to-be-happy-for list is head coach Ed DeChellis ’82 Edu. No one knows Penn State’s success-starved hoops history better than Ed — Sports Illustrated recently called his job the toughest in the Big Ten — and while it’s not the NCAA Tournament glory he and his players were hoping for, it was a huge moment nonetheless. Postgame, he looked happy, tired, and proud.
And just when Ed thought his night couldn’t get any better: Taran Buie, the younger brother of star sophomore Talor Battle and one of the top high school juniors in the nation, put the cherry on top Thursday night when he verbally committed to attend Penn State beginning in 2010. Rumor has it that Buie (read more about him here) joined his big brother and their mom on the team bus after the game and announced his plans to the team.
Even in New York City, the stories don’t get much better than that.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
Entry filed under: Alumni Association, Joe Paterno, Nittany Lion basketball, Penn State alumni, Penn State students. Tags: Baylor, Ed DeChellis, Jamelle Cornley, Madison Square Garden, NIT, Paternoville, Talor Battle, Taran Buie, Zombie Nation.