April 1, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) -- 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."'

Cheered on by football coach Joe Paterno, 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."

Penn State looked like it was in control when it pushed the lead to 49-30 with 9 minutes left, but Harangody put the Irish on his broad shoulders and made a run.

He started with a bucket inside with 8:17 to play, then hit a pair of free throws and drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. By the time Harangody added two more foul shots a few seconds later, the Irish somehow had closed the lead to 51-47 with just over 4 minutes to go.

Cornley, who played with his injured left shoulder heavily wrapped, scored a tough basket inside to finally stop Notre Dame's momentum. Jones added a pair of free throws, Cornley scored another basket inside and the Nittany Lions put the game away from the foul line in the closing minutes.

"We never made a run in the first half like we usually do to get us in an offensive flow," Harangody said. "When we did make a run it was too late."

Harangody missed his first seven shots and didn't score until there was 5:12 left in the first half. By then, Penn State led 20-10 and busloads of fans were at their vocal best.

The sound resonating through the Garden was only amplified when 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."

It was a frustrating end to a disappointing season for the Irish, who were chewed up by their brutal conference schedule and plummeted from a season-best ranking of No. 7 to the bottom half of the Big East. After getting knocked from the conference tournament by West Virginia, they hoped to salvage something in the NIT, but put themselves in too big a hole to dig out Tuesday night.

The Irish shot 8-for-35 from the field during their moribund first half; hit only two 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes after easily setting the school record for 3s in a season; and couldn't stop the Nittany Lions' quick guards from penetrating the middle of the Irish defense.

"Going into the game, we just felt like we had to stop their transition game, get back and rebound," Irish junior guard Tory Jackson said. "They're a great team, very strong, but we had a chance at the end. So I'm not sad about the loss or nothing like that.

"I'm just sad that the seniors went out like that."