The Nittany Lions want to hang an NIT championship banner in the Bryce Jordan Center after this season — and they’ve put themselves in position to achieve that feat.
Penn State will take on Utah in the NIT title game at 7 p.m. Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
“This is what we all play for,” Penn State guard Shep Garner said after the team’s 75-60 win over Mississippi State on Tuesday night. “It will be remembered forever. A championship team can’t be forgotten. We want to do it."
The Nittany Lions (25-13) throttled Mississippi State in the semifinals, racing out to a 37-11 lead in the first half and cruising into the championship game to face the Utes (23-11). Utah took the lead in the final minute in a 69-64 win over Western Kentucky in the first matchup Tuesday night.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said his team will need to be “markedly better” to be competitive against the Nittany Lions.
“Penn State’s a really good team,” he said Wednesday. “I sat and watched last night’s game and we're getting after some film, and they are playing real well and firing on all cylinders.”
Krystkowiak watched as Penn State went on a 24-0 run in the first half to put the game away against the Bulldogs. Garner, Lamar Stevens, Josh Reaves and Tony Carr all hit 3-pointers early in the second quarter during the run, helping Penn State take a 37-11 lead. They smiled and celebrated each big shot during the run at Madison Square Garden.
But they didn’t realize they outscored the Bulldogs 24-0 during that stretch.
“I had no idea,” Reaves said. “No idea at all.”
Added Stevens: “We were really just out there having fun, playing loose. We were just making shots. We had a really good time just playing.”
Stevens said the Nittany Lions enjoy playing at “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” where they’ve gone 3-1 this month. They’ve now won six of their last seven games, starting with their Big Ten tournament opener against Northwestern at Madison Square Garden. Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said the team’s NIT run has been critical to his sophomores’ development and hopes it can serve as a springboard for next season.
But the coach said they’re looking to win the championship for Garner and fifth-year senior Julian Moore, who are aiming to end their careers cutting the nets down in New York on Thursday.
“We really need to remember who we're playing for and what it's about,” Chambers said.
Notes: Justin Bibbins leads Utah in scoring with 14.8 points per game and assists with 4.7 per game. Bibbins scored a team-high 19 points and went 12 for 12 from the foul line in the win over Western Kentucky. … David Collette (12.5), Sedrick Barefield (11.7) and Tyler Rawson (10.9) also average double figures scoring for the Utes. … Utah reached the NIT title game with wins over UC Davis, LSU, Saint Mary’s (Calif.) and Western Kentucky.