Lions Intend to Enjoy Garden Party

Though the NIT was not a primary goal, Penn State would be thrilled to win a title in New York. The Lions face Notre Dame in the semis Tuesday night.

When his senior season began, Penn State forward Jamelle Cornley dreamed of ending his college basketball career by advancing to a final four played inside a well-known venue in a major American city.

But as he saw it then, the event would be THE Final Four -- or the semifinals and final of the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The venue would be massive Ford Field, an indoor stadium.

Instead, after being overlooked by the NCAA selection committee, the Nittany Lions landed in the NIT. And following three straight wins, they'll wrap up the season -- and Cornley's career -- in the tournament final four in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Penn State (25-11) faces Notre Dame (21-14) in a semifinal Tuesday night at 9 p.m. The other semi pairs Baylor and San Diego State.

“I can honestly say I didn't see my career ending in Madison Square Garden,” said Cornley, who went off for 23 points and 12 rebounds in a quarterfinal win at Florida last Tuesday. “But things happen. Now we're trying to [finish it] as something positive. We can be one of two teams to end the year on a winning track, and to leave on that note is something to look forward to.”

Cornley and PSU leading scorer Talor Battle both admitted that the initial sting of being left out of the NCAA field despite finishing the regular season at 22-11 and 10-8 in the Big Ten left the team dazed for a few days. It showed in the NIT opener against George Mason at the Jordan Center, where the Lions needed a late Battle triple to force overtime before grabbing a 77-73 win.

But after that, the team regained its focus.

“What we've been trying to shoot for the whole time is to do something special,” sixth-year head coach Ed DeChellis said. “That's my focus and the seniors' focus, as well. We got into a tournament, and we talked about winning the championship of a national tournament.”

They followed the Mason win with a relatively easy home victory over Rhode Island (83-72). That game was notable in the fact that Cornley did not play. Then they headed to Gainesville last week to face a Gator team that was 18-1 at home on the year and won with relative ease.

“It's been a total team effort,” DeChellis said. “Everyone has done different things on different nights.”

Is advancing to the Garden enough?

“Our goal wasn't to get to New York,” DeChellis said. “Our goal from the onset was to win a championship.”

They'll have to do it against a Notre Dame team that features outstanding three-point shooting and a strong post presence in junior Luke Harangody (25.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg). And while the Lions will be wearing their home uniforms Tuesday night, the Irish should feel more at home, having played two games at MSG in the Big East Tournament last month.

“Once the ball's tossed, it's a game, we'll be ready,” DeChellis said. “We'll play. It doesn't matter where it's at.”

Besides, to give his team a chance to enjoy the experience as much as possible, DeChellis talked athletic director Tim Curley into springing for an early departure for Manhattan. The Lions arrived Sunday. DeChellis said he wanted the trip to be fun and even educational - it has included a trip to Ground Zero.

Yet as has been the case all year, the Nittany Lions are more concerned about what happens on the floor.

“We're going to have fun being [in New York],” Battle said. “But at the same time, it's business, and we want to win.”

And no one wants it more than the seniors -- Cornley, and guards Stanley Pringle and Danny Morrissey.

This may not have been the way Cornley envisioned his career ending. But now that he's in New York and getting ready to play in “the world's most famous arena,” he intends to make the most of it.

“There's no point in holding anything back,” he said. “We're just going to go out and play as hard as we can, and that starts with myself and the seniors. I'm going to approach this game as if it is the championship game, because it could be my last. So why not leave everything out on the floor?”

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