NEW YORK - Welcome to the scene of Penn State's finest hour ever in basketball.
The Nittany Nation, heretofore known only for football on a national stage, turned legendary Madison Square Garden into a sea of white Thursday night and literally shook the court with exuberance as the Lions claimed the National Invitation Tournament with a 69-63 win over Baylor.
"I don't think we could have written the script any better," Lion coach Ed DeChellis said.
It was PSU's first-ever championship of a national basketball tournament (NCAA or NIT), and many of Penn State's most recognizable faces were on the floor afterward congratulating the team.
The well-wishers included Joe Paterno, Franco Harris and school president Graham Spanier.
"Madison Square Garden has always been about history and to have those Penn State legends here tonight means a lot," senior forward Jamelle Cornley said.
But it was more than the dignitaries. Penn State sponsored 36 buses of students, staff and supporters, offering students a ride and a ticket for $20. Walking around MSG before the game was like waiting for the blue buses to arrive at Beaver Stadium.
"It was crazy," sophomore guard Talor Battle said of the atmosphere.
There have been many, many Penn State celebrations to end seasons over the years. But they've all come in a warm bowl venue.
The basketball team was at a loss for words of appreciation for its newfound support.
"I can't describe it," senior guard Danny Morrissey said. "When I came in, there were about 50 students at our first home game. We couldn't get three buses to come across campus. Now this."
Baylor coach Scott Drew didn't take long to acknowledge the disadvantage his team faced.
"Penn State had a great crowd," he said. "This was like a road game for us."
It added up to total gratification for outgoing seniors like Cornley and Morrissey.
"To see the program grow and see where it is now and to leave on such a great note I think seals the deal for me," Cornley said.
While not being selected to the NCAA Tournament stung the Lions, they clearly showed their character in winning five straight NIT games. It started with a win over George Mason after a late Battle 3-pointer rescued victory from the jaws of defeat, continued with an impressive showing over a good Rhode Island team and then crescendoed with outstanding performances at Florida and here against Notre Dame and Baylor.
"It might not be the biggest tournament," Cornley said, "but it means the most when you're in it."
Regardless of whether the Lions' NIT success lends speculation that they could have won at least one game in the NCAA, they certainly maximized their postseason opportunity.
"This is a great tournament, and we're so proud to win it," DeChellis said. "We were on national TV four times, which helps us tremendously, and we had an opportunity for our fans to come to New York. It couldn't have worked out any better."
Watching the Lions hoist the NIT Trophy in celebration for the first time ever after a season, and knowing they weren't going to win the NCAA Tournament, DeChellis' point is well taken.
Neil Rudel is sports editor of the Altoona Mirror.