LIONS WIN NIT TITLE

NEW YORK – The NIT, we have often been told, is little more than a warm-up act for the NCAA Tournament -- a diversion from March's more urgent business, something that should not be taken seriously.

Try explaining that to the 37 busloads of Penn State fans, along with Joe Paterno, who traveled to Madison Square Garden Thursday night, for the championship game of that tournament.

Try explaining that to Nittany Lions senior forward Jamelle Cornley, the Little Postman Who Could (And Did).

And try explaining that to another senior, reserve guard Danny Morrissey, who made the game's two biggest shots and did a face-plant in front of the scorer's table late in the proceedings, one that left him with a bloody lip and a mild concussion.

"It's not too bad," Morrissey said later. "I remember what happened."

He won't be alone. Not after a night that saw the Lions win the first NIT title in school history, courtesy of a 69-63 victory over Baylor. It came in the school's 10th tournament appearance, and its second visit to the championship game; the Lions had lost to Minnesota in 1998.

Cornley, named the tournament's most outstanding player, scored 18 points, all but two of those in the game's first 25:49. Morrissey drained 3-pointers from the left corner on back-to-back trips midway through the second half to snap a 37-37 tie and trigger a decisive 13-3 flurry. And all of that was to the delight of the white-shirted PSU backers who comprised about three-quarters of the announced crowd of 10,254.

"I think Coach (Ed DeChellis) said it best yesterday – that we could not get three buses to go across campus (to watch games in previous years)," Cornley said, "let alone the 30 buses coming to see us at Madison Square Garden. But to see the program grow, and to see where it is now, I think that this seals the deal for me. I can honestly say that I've given everything that I have to the program, and I think that my fellow seniors can say the same thing."

He again played with his partially dislocated left shoulder tightly wrapped, and was left wincing when he took a shot on the joint as LaceDarius Dunn fouled him with 2:35 left in the game.

"It stung a little bit," Cornley said later, as he stood on the court, soon after cutting down the net.

Still later, when he appeared in the interview room with an icebag on the shoulder, he dismissed the shot as "not a big deal."

"I don't really mind that," Cornley said. "It was just a good play. I really was focused on stepping up and hitting the free throws, and I was able to do that."

Moments earlier, Morrissey landed face-first as he went hurtling out of bounds in an attempt to save possession for the Lions. He was down for a few minutes and would not return to the game; he said that as he tried to walk from the bench to the locker room, he "kind of spaced out a little bit."

But afterward, he was around for the celebration.

"My face is feeling better," he said.

"That play," DeChellis said, "kind of typifies what I think our team has been like all year."

DeChellis said he was going with "a gut feeling" by playing Morrissey extended minutes against Baylor's sticky zone, which started out as a 1-1-3 and constantly reformed, looking at times like a 2-3, at times like a 3-2, at times like a 1-3-1. At all times the Bears were active, scrambling to find shooters and fill passing lanes.

DeChellis figured it would help to have a shooter like Morrissey out there, especially since it was his final college game.

"I just felt in my gut tonight that Danny was going to do something," DeChellis said. "I think at this point in time, your senior year, you give your seniors a crack at it."

Morrissey made a 3-pointer in the first half, then missed his next three attempts from the arc, two coming on a single possession with just under 13 minutes left in the game and PSU leading 37-34. But after Dunn tied it with a triple, Morrissey shaped up in the left corner, and the ball found its way to him.

Swish.

Next time down, same thing.

"I haven't shot the ball well all year (35 percent from the arc)," he said, "but I know I'm a good shooter. It doesn't matter if I miss 10 in a row. I know I'll make the next one."

Reserve forward Jeff Brooks connected from the arc on the Lions' next trip, making it 46-37 and prompting Baylor coach Scott Drew to call a timeout with 10:32 to play. PSU's fans celebrated to such a degree that the floor shook. Even the baskets shook.

The Lions would later push the lead to 50-40 on four quick points by sophomore Talor Battle -- two free throws, as well as his first basket of the night, a layup with 8:18 to play. And he and his teammates held Baylor off after that.

Battle finished with 12 points, all of them in the last 13:25. Stanley Pringle and David Jackson had 10 each, and Morrissey scored nine.

Early in the game, it was the 6-5 Cornley that did much of the work; he scored 10 of the Lions' first 19 points, on a variety of floaters, post moves and short jumpers – all of them coming, as usual, over taller defenders.

"He's a load," Drew said. "We didn't have enough answers for him."

"As a senior," Cornley said. "I went into the game knowing that I wanted to set the tone, offensively or defensively, and rebounding the ball."

The Bears (24-15) nonetheless held a 29-25 lead at the half, and the game see-sawed until Morrissey's barrage.

And in the end, all those PSU fans roared in celebration.

"This moment right here," Cornley said, standing in the lane under one basket, "is the best moment I've had in my entire life."

A native of Columbus, Ohio, he had not been recruited by his hometown school, Ohio State. Nor had any other high-profile programs shown much interest. He was about to commit to Dayton when another recruit, Charles Little, decided to go there. Penn State, which had been wooing Little, then turned its attention to Cornley.

He has generated 1,579 points and 756 rebounds in four years – leaving him fifth in school history on both lists -- and this year was the centerpiece of a team that set a school record with 27 victories (against 11 losses).

He knows that he will face the usual doubts about his size as he tries to pursue an NBA career, but is aware that certain undersized post guys have carved out a niche in the league – although those guys have usually been Hall of Famers like Adrian Dantley and Charles Barkley, or highly decorated college stars, like Corliss Williamson.

Still, Cornley said last week, "I'm going to prove somebody wrong."

If he cannot do that, there's always overseas – or, he believes, the NFL. Never mind that he only played organized football for part of his junior season in high school, at tight end and defensive end. Never mind that he has had only limited contact with pro football scouts.

"I'm very serious (about the NFL)," he said. "Believe it or not, I've always had the mindset to play football. I love football. ... If the opportunity came, I would look into it."

That was far from his mind as he stood at midcourt in a place that bills itself The World's Most Famous Arena late Thursday night. He raised his fist, then held the most outstanding player trophy overhead as the fans roared and chanted his name. He wiped tears from his eyes, blew kisses, patted his chest.

"You can beat numbers," he said later. "Records can be broken. But legacies, they live forever. And that's what I want to leave with."

And he did.

LEVINE'S GALLERY: NIT CHAMPIONSHIP

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