Penn State vs. Baylor for NIT title tonight

April 2, 2009 5:02:24 AM PDT
Jamelle Cornley has a sense of history that few others do.

The undersized senior forward from Penn State realizes that the NIT isn't the NCAA tournament, but understands that for many years the NIT decided the true national champion. The list of winners is every bit as decorated as its more visible cousin.

"Any time you are able to play for a championship, regardless of the circumstances, you really want to leave all that you have on the table," Cornley said.

Especially when your program has never won one.

Penn State plays Baylor for the NIT title Thursday night, two schools with very little basketball tradition vying for one of the game's most tradition-rich championships.

The Nittany Lions (26-11) set a school record for wins in a season with their 67-59 semifinal victory over Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. They lost in the NIT title game in 1998, the closest they've come to winning a major postseason tournament championship.

"Our goal is to win the championship, and we are going to do everything we can to prepare our guys," coach Ed DeChellis said. "We had a lot of firsts this year. We won some games in a row in places where we have not won, we beat some people twice we have not beat before. This will be another first for us, and I'm not going to let two seniors go away without giving it our best shot."

Penn State certainly had the credentials to make the NCAA tournament, finishing fourth in the top conference according to RPI and going 4-3 against the RPI top 25, one of the key indicators used by the selection committee.

But they were done in by some bad losses, including a double-overtime defeat by Iowa in their regular-season finale.

So when their name wasn't called on selection Sunday, DeChellis turned to Cornley and fellow senior Stanley Pringle and asked what they wanted to do.

Cornely had only one answer.

"By playing in the NIT tournament, with all the history that's been made here, I think it's very fun and exciting," he said after the game Tuesday night, smiling even with bandages heavily wrapping an injured left shoulder. "Hopefully we are able to come out and put on another great performance."

They'll have to do it against a team that has become something of a sentimental favorite.

Four years ago, the Bears (24-14) weren't allowed to play a nonconference schedule because of the fallout from a scandal in the basketball program that rocked the idyllic Baptist campus in central Texas.

In stepped coach Scott Drew, who had spent nine years as an assistant to his father at Valparaiso and one year as head coach when Homer Drew retired.

People thought he was crazy for taking over a program in such need of rehab, that hadn't been very successful to begin with. But the young coach began building immediately, selling players like Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dun n on the chance to create something from the ground up.

Now, that senior class has won a school-record 64 games with a chance to win a championship.

"When we brought in this group of seniors now, we knew that they had the character and they had the potential and the ability to be playing in Final Fours and having a chance to do these kind of things," Drew said. "Credit them for putting in the hard work, getting better, improving, but it's really a tight team and you need that to be successful.

"Down the stretch, every coach knows you always want to finish strong, and again, it's been a blessing that they have been able to go out the way they have."

After losing 10 of their last 12 regular-season games, all but eliminating the Bears from NCAA tournament consideration, they seemed to find their stride in the Big 12 tournament.

Jerrells and Dunn, along with fellow seniors Henry Dugat and Mamadou Diene, carried Baylor to a win over Nebraska and a second-round upset of top-seeded Kansas. A day later, the Bears beat Texas to reach their first Big 12 tournament title game.

Their competitive loss to Missouri only seemed to reinforce that those seniors didn't want to see their remarkable careers come to an end.

They beat tradition-rich Georgetown to open the NIT, then went on the road to beat Virginia Tech and Auburn, before knocking off San Diego State 76-62 in the tournament semifinals.

"I just keep telling guys, every time I do an interview, that I just enjoy the opportunity to play," Jerrells said. "Our goal was to make the NCAA tournament and we didn't do that. We were able to muster enough to get everybody to the NIT, and as long as you're playing, man, you got to go out there and take care of business.

"At the end of the day, it's a basketball game regardless of where it's at."

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