STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State coach Ed DeChellis wanted so badly for his team to get into the NCAA tournament that he sought divine intervention.
Now, prayers have been answered in Happy Valley.
A decade-long NCAA tourney drought is over for the Nittany Lions. Fueled by a run to the Big Ten tournament title game, star guard Talor Battle and Penn State (19-14) drew a #10 seed in the West region and a first-round game Thursday against #7 seed Temple (25-7).
After a roller coaster of a career that included an NIT championship in 2009 and a 20-loss season last year, Penn State’s five seniors — including star 6’0″ guard Talor Battle — finally get a chance to play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“There are sometimes you hope it really worked out. This one, I really hoped worked out,” DeChellis said in a teleconference Sunday. “I prayed to the Lord to watch over our kids … I prayed for giving (Battle) strength. The little guy has courage. He is a competitor and has courage.”
…And a slew of records, including being the school’s all-time leading scorer, and only the third Division I player after Maryland’s Grevis Vasquez and Duke’s Danny Ferry to compile 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, and 500 assists in a career.
But no NCAA appearance until now, and Battle said all year he would trade in all his records to get into the tourney.
Nonconference losses to Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia Tech, and Maine — especially Maine — weighed down their résumé, certainly. Penn State had headline-grabbing upsets in January of ranked teams Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, and had close calls at Purdue and Ohio State.
But they lost momentum again with three straight losses to start out February. An 82-61 loss to top-ranked Ohio State, in which Penn State wasn’t competitive at all at home on Senior Night, looked disastrous.
It turns out it was the last loss before a late-season, four-win surge. They finished the regular season with a crucial victory at Minnesota before turning up the defense in beating Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan at the Big Ten tourney.
“They’ve had a great run, a great year. We were so close in a couple games, but again, they were very resilient the whole year,” DeChellis said. “I’m very proud of the effort.”
The last time the Nittany Lions made the NCAAs was in 2001. They upset North Carolina in the second round to set up a regional semifinal date against the state-rival Owls. Temple won 84-72.
The Nittany Lions and Owls also scrimmaged in the preseason. DeChellis jokingly suggested the two Pennsylvania schools could play in Harrisburg instead of across the country in Arizona.
Playing with just a seven-man rotation and heavily reliant on his starters, DeChellis said he’ll give his team off Monday following a grueling four games in four days. Then they’ll have just two days to practice before playing Temple on Thursday.
Given the alternative though, DeChellis wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The smiles and the joy on my kids’ faces … It’s very, very special to me,” he said. “Now we got ourselves into the tourney, and it’s because of those seniors.”
(Copyright 2011 by the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)