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EVEN TOUGH LOSS CAN'T DAMPEN GRIFFINS' SPIRITS

John Beilein was almost defiant in the wake of the Griffs' ouster from the championship round of the NIT.

He talked of his expectation that he would be back on the same podium in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night after the consolation game against Penn State, talking about a victory. He absolved Michael Meeks for the 1-for-15 egg he laid. He spoke of the pride he had in his team.

What he couldn't do was conceal his disappointment in the Griffs' disastrous trip to Antarctica early in the game, their load of bricks which lined a pit out of which they couldn't climb.

For an agonizing amount of time in the first half, just three players were able to score anything -- layups, jump shots, free throws -- for Canisius. At intermission, strong men averted their gaze from the stat sheet. The Griffs shot 33 percent. They shot 0 for 9 from three-point range.

What kept Canisius out of the NCAA Tournament was that they would seem to play a clunker about every five games. They have been overdue lately, but the clunker came out of the woodwork Monday. Maybe it was basketball stage fright, New York, the "Gah-den" and all that. Observers at the morning shootarounds felt that it was the Virginia Tech players who were in awe of the Garden. Maybe the Griffs concealed their awe until they took the floor. Not even Beilein himself had ever been in this famous hall.

So what's a coach to do but sound defiant? Or look to the future.

Craig Wise reminded Beilein and the Canisius fans what they'll be missing after Wednesday's consolation. For a large portion of the Virginia Tech game it was Wise against the world. His 32 points were a personal record and in characteristic humility, he brushed it aside by pointing out "it doesn't mean much because we didn't win."

But Wise had some help and it came from an unaccustomed source, Ryan Collins. The big sophomore took down eight rebounds in 12 minutes. He scored a couple of big baskets. He played intelligently and with poise.

This is the big kid who would come into a game with fear in his eyes during his freshman season. The fear is gone. Privately, it's said that if Beilein had it to do over, he would have red-shirted the big guy in his first year. Collins has been playing well down the stretch and you could see the confidence when he came into the game Monday night.

"We're excited about what Ryan has done in the last three weeks," admitted Beilein, brightening. "We didn't anticipate this two weeks ago. It was too late to change our offense to accommodate his contributions, but we'll play a little different next season with two big men in our lineup."

Those who watched Canisius through the years feel that Collins is further ahead in his development than 7-footer Mike Smrek was at the same point. Smrek ended up playing in the NBA.

More than leaning on Collins, Beilein would like to extend the tradition of grittiness the Griffs developed in the last two years. "We came back to make a game of it late and I'm proud of that," said Beilein.

"The Washington State people said that none of the teams they played in the Pac-10 came at them harder than Canisius did," said Virginia Tech coach Bill Foster.

This game had something else to say about the college basketball future in Western New York. Starting next season, the Hokies will be a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, moving from the Metro Conference.

That is not a thought that will gladden the heart of Jim Baron, whose St. Bonaventure team must play them twice a year. The Hokies use only six players, but none of them are seniors and they all can play.

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