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GRIFFS MOTIVATED TO GO OUT A WINNER CANISIUS LOOKS TO TAKE HOME NIT CONSOLATION PRIZE

There's no hardware to be won, just some pride to regain.

That's the simple outlook tonight for Canisius, which ends the longest basketball season in school history by playing Penn State in the National Invitation Tournament consolation game in Madison Square Garden (6:30, Radio 1230).

The Griffs (21-13) get a second chance to tie the school record for victories in a season, set in 1956-57 and again last year. But there is no berth in the championship game, no appearance on ESPN and thus, no chance to hoist the NIT trophy and cut down the Garden nets.

Nonetheless, Canisius does have the motivation of ending its season on a winning note after losing, 71-59, in Monday's semifinals to Virginia Tech.

"I saw (NIT executive director) Jack Powers today and I told him not to ever take away the consolation game," said Canisius coach John Beilein. "It's great to have one more chance to play and not go nine months thinking about the disappointment you had in the semifinals."

"Coach made it a point that only three teams end their season with a win," said sophomore center Ryan Collins, referring to the NCAA and NIT champions and NIT third-place team. "We're hoping to be one of those."

Penn State (20-11), in its third year in the Big Ten, lost, 87-79, to Marquette after leading by 16 points in the first half of their semifinal game.

The Big Ten is the 15th different conference Canisius has played against this year. The Griffs have faced teams from six of the top eight leagues, excluding only the Big Eight and Southeastern conferences. Tonight's game will be their 20th of the season against a team that made it to postseason play, and the Griffs have a 10-9 record in those games.

"Oh yeah, we've been after the Big Ten all year," Beilein cracked. "We've wanted them big-time."

The Griffs worked out Tuesday at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn, the alma mater of point guard Javone Moore. The team then attended an NIT dinner at the Tavern on the Green near Central Park before going to the Garden to watch Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls play the New York Knicks.

Without the pressure of advancing in the tournament, Beilein is likely to do more experimenting with his lineup. The rapidly improving Collins should see plenty of action, including stints with starter Micheal Meeks also in the game to form a "Twin Towers" approach the Griffs may use more frequently next season.

In addition, Beilein said he will reward senior Damone James with a start in the final game of his collegiate career. James, a Turner/Carroll graduate who has been used exclusively as a reserve the last 1 1/2 seasons, will replace struggling freshman Kevin Thompson (1 of 11 from the field in the four NIT games).

While Meeks went through a 1-of-15 nightmare from the field against Virginia Tech, the 6-foot-9 Collins grabbed eight rebounds to establish a career high for the second straight game. He has 23 boards in the tournament.

"My confidence comes from the fact I'm learning my role on the team and adjusting to it a little better," Collins said. "I know I don't have to go in and score 10 points to be a factor in the game. If I get 10 rebounds, I have the same effect."

Collins, Meeks & Co. will be challenged tonight by 6-10, 270-pound Penn State center John Amaechi, an all-Big Ten player. Amaechi averages 16 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 56.8 percent from the field.

"He is just absolutely huge," Beilein said. "But I don't mind big guys like that the way our guys can go outside on them. Amaechi isn't a whole lot bigger than (Manhattan center) Jamal Marshall. I don't like (playing against) people like Virginia Tech, who had 6-foot-6 guys all around who can match up with us."

The matchup against the Griffs' athletic frontline, combined with the consolation-game blahs, has Penn State coach Bruce Parkhill worried.

"I'm definitely concerned," Parkhill said. "It's a real challenge because we're playing a very, very good team. Canisius has got some real good athletes and it's really going to be a tough game for us."

The Griffs feel likewise. But title or no title, they want to enjoy a pleasant getaway to the offseason.

"We came here to win," Meeks said. "Not getting to the championship is like not getting to the NCAAs. We didn't get there either and we still managed to get to the Garden. But we want to do the same things we have all year -- go hard and go to win."

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