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NIT RUN HAS GRIFFS IN NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

A week before Thanksgiving, Canisius was one win away from playing in Madison Square Garden. Four months later, nothing has changed.

A win by the Griffs tonight in Memorial Auditorium against Washington State (7:30, Radio 1230) will send them to Monday's National Invitation Tournament Final Four in the Garden. No local team has gone that far since St. Bonaventure won the NIT in 1977.

By noon today, about 7,000 of the Aud's 9,458 basketball seats had been sold for the quarterfinal game. Tickets ($10 for the public, $4 for Canisius students) will continue to be available today in the Koessler Center and Prime Seats outlets, including the Aud.

"This is going to be great. It's going to be a great event in Buffalo," said Griffs coach John Beilein, whose team is 20-12. "We're looking forward to it and certainly glad to be wearing white (home jerseys) after a long season on the road."

Back in November, George Washington dashed the Griffs' hopes of making the final four of the Preseason NIT with a 62-59 victory. That prevented Canisius point guard Javone Moore, a graduate of Brooklyn's Bishop Ford High, from playing in front of his family and friends in the Garden.

Moore, a sophomore whose 147 assists this year are fourth in school history for one year, doesn't want to endure similar disappointment tonight.

"I've always had a dream of playing at Madison Square Garden," he said. "The public high school championship is played there, but the Catholic championship is at Fordham University, so we didn't get a chance to play at the Garden.

"Now in college, I've had occasions of almost making it there. Hopefully this is the time."

Washington State (18-11) is ranked 35th in the Sagarin Ratings, but 76th in the most recent Ratings Percentage Index because two of its wins were against non-Division I schools. Canisius is 88th in the RPI. Bradley, the team the Griffs beat Monday, was 58th.

Despite two wins over Oregon and one over Arizona State, Washington State missed the NCAA Tournament. That was largely due to a 5-8 road record this year, but the Cougars advanced to tonight's showdown with Monday's 83-80 win at Illinois State.

"The story on us has been that we haven't played on the road," junior forward Mark Hendrickson said before his team's practice Wednesday at the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena. "But with that atmosphere (at Illinois State) being a real hostile environment, we played real well.

"That's why we're getting excited because we're getting our confidence to know we can play on the road. . . . There has been some immaturity that set in throughout the season. Hopefully, we've got past that stage and are now mature enough to handle things."

The 6-foot-9 Hendrickson was an all-Pac 10 player this year. He averages 16 points and nine rebounds per game, while shooting 62.9 percent from the field.

"He looks like a special player, another one of our guys will have to do a great job against," Beilein said. "He shoots threes, he scores and rebounds it very well. He's a lot like (Canisius center) Mike Meeks. He steps away and shoots it also."

Everyone on the Cougars' roster does. In fact, Washington State leads the nation in field goal percentage at 52.0 and averages 83.7 points per game.

First-year coach Kevin Eastman has concerns about the Canisius offense, which uses its frontcourt players away from the basket as much as it does in the low post.

"No one plays like them that we've played," Eastman said. "(In) the Pac-10 generally each team has one big strong kid that never strays too far from the block. With Canisius you can get a Meeks or (Darrell) Barley straying away from the bucket and causing us some problems.

"Their offense pulls all five defenders out from the basket and we haven't seen that at all. And they're a good 'big shot' team."

That was the case Monday when 29 points over the final 11 minutes produced a 55-53 win at Bradley. It was the Griffs' 11th road victory, four more than any previous Canisius team.

"We shot terribly (20 of 58) but we played good defense," Barley said. "Me and Craig (Wise) were 7 of 25 and we won, so that tells you something about our team."

"If we had lost some tough games earlier in crunch time it could have been, 'Here we go again. We're going to find a way to lose,' " Beilein said. "Instead we said, 'We love to silence the crowd and we're going to find a way.' "

If the Griffs find a way to win tonight, they figure to spark an Aud celebration no local college team has seen in quite a while.

"The enthusiasm on campus and in Buffalo is very similar to what it would be (if the Griffs had made the NCAAs)," Beilein said. "It's a thrilling thing for these kids to know they're one game away from the other Final Four."

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