For Penn State and Utah, the NIT was bigger than a consolation prize

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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NEW YORK – Before stepping foot in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak had never made the final four of a tournament. Since he started as an assistant in Montana in 1998, he has always been on the outside looking in on teams playing on the last few days of the college basketball season.

So you can spare him the talk about the NIT being a consolation prize.

“It’s the time of my life, actually,” Krystkowiak said, despite his Utes losing 82-66 to Penn State in the NIT title game on Thursday. “People on the outside writing articles [about the NIT], have comments, opinions about what’s going on. They have no idea how cool this was for us.”

It was, even for the casual observer, a “cool” night at the Garden. The attendance broke 11,000, the largest since 2005, as Penn State supporters packed the stands. In previous years, there might be just three or four sections filled with fans. Thursday night, even some sections in the upper deck were full.

There was a constant stream of “We are Penn State” chants. There was a back-and-forth “Utah” and “Penn State” cheer between supporters of both sides. It sounded like a championship game. It felt like both teams genuinely wanted it.

In the end, Penn State outplayed Utah. Lamar Stevens couldn’t miss in the second half, as the Utes never responded to the Nittany Lions’ surge. After the final buzzer sounded, Penn State players did what only champions get to do: cut down the nets. And not just anywhere – at MSG, the mecca of basketball.

“Now we have something that we can always go to … to say we won something,” said Penn State guard Shep Garner. “We’re champions.”

Think this tournament didn’t matter? Ask Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers, who choked up in his postgame remarks talking about how special this win was.

“The losses never leave us and the wins are just not gratifying enough,” he said. “But this one, this one’s going to be gratifying.”

Just two teams get to call themselves “champions” at the end of the college basketball season. It is true that both Penn State and Utah only participated in the NIT because they weren’t chosen to play in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t diminish the seasons they put together.

“You want to win the game, but losing it doesn’t take away from anything,” said Utah guard Justin Bibbins, who played the final college game of his career on Thursday. “You get to come to New York with your boys.”

Krystkowiak said that he talked to a coach who had gone to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, but had also won the NIT.

“[He] said of all of his experiences, the NIT was the best experience,” Krystkowiak said.

Both Krystkowiak and Chambers said before the game that they would rather win the NIT than lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There is more experience for young players who need it, more exposure on national television and, at the end of the day, the deeper you play, the better it is — no matter the tournament.

“It’s a springboard for us,” Chambers said. “To cut down some nets, that means winning. You’re winning, you’re finding success, and that helps everything out. That helps ticket sales. That helps recruiting.”

When Penn State practiced these past few weeks, Chambers told his players that they were still competing for a championship. In the huddle, he would say, “New York.” When he sensed that his players were getting a little sluggish, he reminded them: “New York.”

“That was coach,” Garner said. “Coach told us, ‘We’re here. We’ve got to get to New York. We’ve got to win a championship in New York.’ To see that we achieved the goal we set out to get, great.”