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The head coach can't stop smiling. The players are thrilled. The fickle fans have jumped back on the bandwagon.

It's been a long time since things were this good for the Canisius College basketball program. Sunday morning, the Griffs fly to New York City to play in the National Invitation Tournament Final Four for the first time in 32 years.

Canisius is the talk of the town after a near-sellout crowd of 9,065 saw its 89-80 victory over Washington State on Thursday in Memorial Auditorium. Come Monday night at 7, when the Griffs play Virginia Tech in the first NIT semifinal, they'll be the talk of ESPN for the third time this season.

"It still hasn't sunk in," said point guard Javone Moore, a Brooklyn native. "The Garden. My dream to get there has come true. I finally get to play there in front of my family and everything. This is going to be great."

"It gives us immediate national recognition that opens up our recruiting a little bit more," coach John Beilein said. "More people will know the Canisius name. We can probably get into more homes and it will open some doors so it's got to help us."

The instant recognition began quickly Friday. Canisius fielded calls from all-sports radio stations in Chicago and Las Vegas, as well as the nationally syndicated "One on One Sports." Center Micheal Meeks was a guest on "AM Buffalo" and guard Damone James was on WGR Radio.

The Griffs return to work today with a practice at the Koessler Center. Once in New York, a full lineup of activities is planned for the Griffs, Virginia Tech, Marquette and Penn State.

The big one is Tuesday -- each team gets 20 tickets to see Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls play the New York Knicks at the Garden.

"I've never been there in my life," Beilein said. "This will be my first trip, too. It's a great weekend for these guys to be in the Garden. They put you in the best hotels and take great care of you."

Things start with a news conference Sunday at noon in the tournament headquarters, the Marriott Marquis. A pregame buffet for dignitaries is planned Monday at Eamon Doran's restaurant and a dinner for the players will be held Tuesday at the Tavern on the Green near Central Park.

For Canisius, the Final Four is more about prestige than finances. The Griffs could clear about $35,000 for getting to New York; they will actually get somewhere between $65,000 and $80,000, but Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference bylaws require the team to return half to the league.

A MAAC team that makes the NCAA Tournament gets $75,000 in that year but stands to make more than that because the league then distributes revenue to all its schools over a rolling five-year period based on how many games it plays in the event.

The victory has raised interest in Buffalo and on campus to heights not seen in decades.

"Hopefully, this will make people realize throughout the state of New York and especially Buffalo that Canisius is a program that is a force to be reckoned with," said James, a senior who is the lone Buffalo native on the squad. "Hopefully in the years to come, we'll get larger crowds like that for the Manhattans and Sienas and St. Peter's.

"Coach is going to build a great program. This helps and hopefully when I graduate and get a great job somewhere one day, I can come back and see great crowds."

The Canisius students bought 1,300 tickets for Thursday's game at $4 apiece. Sales for a normal regular-season game -- free for students -- rarely go over 200.

"That was phenomenal," said Kevin Smith, the school's coordinator of sports promotions. "We sold 400 tickets the first day (Tuesday) and I had to keep going to get more. I couldn't give tickets away at times all year but these just kept getting gobbled up."

Smith, a 1991 Canisius graduate, said his office has provided information to students interested in going to New York, although there will not be a school-sponsored excursion because they would need to miss three days of class.

He expects many students to watch Monday's game in the school's on-campus Upper Deck cafe and then head to New York if the Griffs are in Wednesday's championship.

"There's big interest," he said. "It's tough to get them down to Bona or Niagara Falls sometimes but they're really interested in New York City, which is great."

The hope is that playing in the Big Apple will get more players interested in Canisius. Several weeks ago, the school bought nonrefundable plane tickets for some recruits to visit campus this weekend and talk to the players and staff. That visit will go on, but there won't be any players to see.

"We have some great recruits in, but we'll have to tell them we're not going to be there," Beilein said. "I think it's worth it."

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