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CANISIUS RISES TO THE OCCASION GRIFFS EARN GARDEN TRIP FOR NIT SEMIS

Start spreadin' the news. Canisius is going to be a part of it.

New York, New York.

At 9:29 p.m. Thursday, Memorial Auditorium erupted with a celebration the likes of which no local college basketball team has seen in decades.

At that moment, the final horn sounded to signal the Griffs' pulsating 89-80 win over Washington State in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals.

The victory sends Canisius (21-12) into the NIT Final Four Monday night at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Griffs will play Virginia Tech (23-10) at 7 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ESPN. Marquette (20-11) meets Penn State (20-10) at 9.

A frenzied Aud crowd of 9,065 wildly cheered the final 30 seconds off the clock. When time expired, the arena's infamous foghorn let out a prolonged bellow.

The melodies of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared over the public address system and the floor was instantly flooded with stampeding Canisius students.

They were celebrating Western New York's first NIT Final Four team since St. Bonaventure went in 1977, and the first trip for Canisius since 1963.

"To win a game with close to 10,000 people out there watching and to have the fans embrace us like that just feels wonderful," said Griffs senior Craig Wise. "From when I came in (in 1991), when our first game at the Aud was against UB and there weren't even 2,000 fans out here, it's just been a total turnaround."

That's for sure. When John Beilein became head coach in April 1992, he inherited a program that had gone through five straight losing seasons. In the last two years, Canisius is 43-19.

Thursday night, the Griffs rewarded the crowd by dismantling the visitors from the powerful Pac 10 Conference.

"That's a storybook type of thing for our season," Beilein said. "I just told these kids there was no way I ever thought we could meet our expectations.

"I think these guys felt some of the pressure as we went along. I thought sometimes we (would have) to get to the Final Four of the other tournament (the NCAA) in order to meet expectations."

No one can argue that Canisius has played like an NCAA team in its three NIT wins. Holding a 36-30 halftime lead Thursday, the Griffs exploded for 53 second-half points -- their most since scoring 55 in the season-opening upset at Penn on Nov. 16.

Junior center Micheal Meeks led Canisius with 24 points (18 in the second half), while junior forward Darrell Barley tossed in 20. Wise added 13 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

The Griffs kept the Cougars (18-12) at bay with an amazing 27-of-30 free-throw shooting display. Canisius made 23 of 25 from the line in the final 20 minutes -- including 22 in a row at one stretch.

Canisius had a tenuous 72-68 lead with 2:39 left but put the game away by scoring all 17 of its remaining points at the line.

The freebies made things comfortable for Beilein, and the normally stoic coach broke into a wide grin when the celebration began for real after Chris Young was fouled with 6.6 seconds left.

He even stuck around to watch the postgame chaos and savor a moment he could only dream about when he left Division II LeMoyne to return to his Western New York roots.

"No matter what the situation is, I usually head right off the court," Beilein said. "I had to turn around and look back, listen to the music -- and watch these guys to make sure nobody got hurt."

Five minutes into the game, such a scene seemed unlikely.

With All-Pac 10 forward Mark Hendrickson getting eight of his 19 points in the first 6 1/2 minutes, Canisius fell into a 16-6 hole. The Griffs then switched to a zone defense and the Cougars had trouble working the ball inside. WSU, the nation's top shooting team, hit only 48 percent from the field.

"We knew we could play with this team," Wise said. "Sure, they're from the Pac 10. They've got a lot of talent and you have to give them a lot of credit, but we have a lot of talent also."

The deficit was still nine (21-12) with 10:46 left in the half before the much-maligned Canisius bench started a 13-0 run that turned the game around.

Senior guard Damone James hit two three-pointers and scored all eight of his points in the outburst. Young also hit a trey in that stretch, which ended with the Griffs on top, 25-21. Canisius never trailed again.

"We sensed in the (pregame) layup line we were kind of tense and then we were flat on defense," said point guard Javone Moore. "But the bench really sparked us. They've been great in practice and great in games."

Washington State got as close as three (44-41) early in the second half before Wise and Barley scored all the points in a 10-2 run that pushed the gap to 54-43.

The Cougars rallied to cut the lead to four points on five different occasions as sophomore guard Isaac Fontaine had 16 of his 20 points in the second half.

But his efforts weren't enough.

By Monday, the Griffs will be waking up in the city that doesn't sleep. And like the song says: If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

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