Penn State is currently in the midst of its 11th NIT appearance, as they prepare to take on Mississippi State in the semifinals in Madison Square Garden. While it’ a small consolation for a lack of success in the Big Dance, it sure is nice to see the season stretch late into March, well after the season has ended for most programs. Let’s take a look back at Penn State’s six trips to the NIT during the Big Ten era, five of which ended in trips to at least the Final Four.
Penn State made some noise in its second year in the Big Ten, but didn’t have the juice to go dancing. A 17-10 regular season with no wins against ranked opponents just wasn’t going to cut it. Led by John Amaechi, one of the top players in program, the Nittany Lions managed to go 9-9 in Big Ten play in a somewhat down year for the conference.
The Nittany Lions rallied from a 20-point second half deficit to beat Miami (FL) in Rec Hall, in what would be Bruce Parkhill’s final game as head coach in Happy Valley. From there, they took down a pre-Big Ten Nebraska squad before besting Iowa for a second time to propel them into the Final Four. However, they could not slow down a talented Marquette team in Madison Square Garden, which put them in the third place game, where they defeated Canisius 66-62.
Despite losing Amaechi, Penn State would go on to a 21-7 record the following year under new head coach Jerry Dunn. This time, the Nittany Lions would not be denied a spot in the NCAA Tournament, as the team climbed all the way to #9 in the polls during as one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season. However, Penn State was ultimately bounced in the first round by Arkansas, 86-80.
Penn State had a late surge in the ‘97-’98 regular season, but a first round 52-51 Big Ten tourney loss to Wisconsin ended any hope for the Nittany Lions to make the NCAA Tournament. Led by sharpshooter Pete Lisicky and future NBA center Calvin Booth, Penn State put everything together for a deep run in the NIT. After blowing past Rider at home in the first round, the Nittany Lions hit the road to win close contests at Dayton and Georgia Tech. They would then topple Georgia in a defensive battle in the Final Four, to set up a championship game against a familiar foe. Waiting for the Nittany Lions was Big Ten rival Minnesota, who had previously played the Nittany Lions twice during the regular season. Penn State had won the first game against the Gophers at home 75-68, before falling on the road 82-77 late in the season.
Minnesota did a good job of clamping down on Lisicky, Penn State’s leading scorer, who finished with 11 points on 3 of 12 shooting. The Gophers held on to a small lead throughout the game, and did enough to stay in control, ultimately winning the championship 79-72. Penn State finished the season 19-13, and the deep run in the NIT did not springboard the team to success the following season- the Nittany Lions would be shut out of the postseason in 1999, following a 13-14 season where the team was just 5-11 in conference play.
Penn State seemed to be heading for another losing season in 2000, thanks to a 5-11 record in Big Ten play for a second consecutive season. The season started well enough as the team built a 9-2 record, including victories against Clemson and Boston College in non-conference play. But the Big Ten was not so kind. After losing its first two conference games to ranked teams (Indiana and Michigan State), the Nittany Lions seemed to find their footing by winning three of its next four games. But then the bottom fell out, as the team finished on a dismal 1-8 skid to end the regular season. Fortunately, wins against Michigan and a huge upset over #4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament helped ensure that Penn State would finish at .500 with a 15-15 record.
Penn State would ride that momentum into the NIT, where they reeled off three consecutive victories against mid-major opponents to make the final four. This included a dramatic shootout against Siena, which Penn State came out on top 105-103. Penn State would finally face a Power 5 opponent in Notre Dame for the Final Four, and the Nittany Lions were no match for the Irish. Notre Dame crushed Penn State 73-52 in Madison Square Garden. The Irish would go on to lose to Wake Forest in the championship, while Penn State would defeat NC State in a nailbiter to take home the third place prize.
The deep NIT run did benefit the program, as they returned most of the key players who would ultimately make it all the way to the Sweet 16 the following season.
The 2005-2006 season featured an upset against #6 Illinois, but not much else. Finishing at 15-15 was a step forward, after a a brutal 7-23 campaign that featured just one conference victory during the previous season. It was also the first postseason appearance under Ed DeChellis. Unfortunately, it was a short trip. Penn State would lose to Rutgers at home 76-71 in the first round of the NIT, as Rutgers’ Quincy Douby would score a game-high 32 points on 8-for-14 3-point shooting to stymie the home crowd at the BJC. The team took a step back the following year, finishing 2-14 in the Big Ten and 11-19 overall.
Penn State seemed destined for an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009. The Nittany Lions came out of nowhere to surprise the Big Ten under the play of its three stars in Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle. The season included victories against three ranked opponents in Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois (twice). However, the Nittany Lions were left on the outside looking in when the tournament was announced, thanks in large part to a double-overtime loss against Iowa during the last regular season game that would have allowed them to pad their resume.
Despite the snub, Penn State came out motivated. However, at first it appeared Penn State was destined for another first round exit. George Mason led the Nittany Lions 65-62 in the closing seconds, but Talor Battle would race down the court and throw up a three at the buzzer to force overtime. From there on, the Nittany Lions were on a mission, as they would go on to a 77-73 win in OT, and then earn convincing victories against Rhode Island and Florida to face off against Notre Dame in another trip to Madison Square Garden. This time, the Nittany Lions would prove to be the better team, besting the Irish 67-59 for a spot in the championship game against Baylor.
Baylor had found itself ranked as high as 19th during the regular season, but a late-season losing skid would end their NCAA Tournament hopes. Despite coming off a blowout win against San Diego State to reach the championship, the Nittany Lions proved to be too much for the Bears. Penn State led much of the way, thanks to the inside play of Jamelle Cornley, who wouldn’t be denied in his last game as a Nittany Lion. Cornley put up 18 points as Penn State held off a late rally to win its first NIT Championship.
Penn State would finish 27-11, but fell to an 11-20 season the following year.
If you’ve read this far, you likely have been paying close attention to Penn State’s current NIT run, as they prepare to take on the Mississippi State Fightin’ Moorheads in the Final Four on Tuesday. This NIT run has been similar to the previous appearance in 2009 that led to a championship- overcoming a poor first round performance to win in the closing moments thanks to late heroics, followed by coming away with less dramatic victories against higher-seeded teams in the next two rounds.
Can Penn State win the NIT in consecutive appearances? Will this NIT run propel the program to a tourney bid in 2019? Only time will tell...