A meaningless consolation game? Hardly. Not the way Penn State and Canisius battled in their season finale Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden.
Once more, for ol' times sake, the Griffs looked primed for another huge comeback that would have been an appropriate end to their wild season.
They were down by 12 points with less than eight minutes left. They were even inside the final 50 seconds. But they couldn't top off the rally and Penn State recovered to earn third place in the National Invitation Tournament with a thrilling 66-62 victory.
"All year long we've been down and come back to win in big games against big teams, big names," said senior forward Craig Wise, who was named as the Griffs' representative on the all-tournament team. "We just wanted one more big name to add to our list."
The Griffs (21-14) didn't get it because John Amaechi, Penn State's 6-foot-10 all-Big Ten center, snapped a 62-62 tie with two free throws with 46.4 seconds left. He was fouled by Chris Young after rebounding a Glenn Sekunda miss by pulling the ball off the cylinder, barely escaping an offensive goaltending call.
The Griffs had a bad officiating break on their ensuing possession, too. Wise and Darrell Barley both missed three-pointers for the lead, Micheal Meeks rimmed a tap and the ball eventually went out of bounds in front of the Canisius bench, which reacted with disbelief when referee Owen Hannah awarded the ball to the Nittany Lions.
Penn State (21-11) then clinched the win on Dan Earl's two freebies with 6.4 seconds left, leaving Canisius coach John Beilein to be his usual diplomatic self on the subject of the crunch-time calls.
"The ball bounces your way sometimes and sometimes the refs help you here or there or hurt you here or there," he said. "It's not why we lost the game."
The Griffs did because they spent 30 minutes coming from behind after a 16-0 Penn State run wiped out a 24-20 Canisius lead. The margin was 13 (51-38) early in the second half and Pete Lisicky missed a three-pointer that could have put the Griffs down by 16. Given a reprieve, Young hit two NBA-range treys to help cut the gap to 51-44.
But Penn State jumped back ahead, 58-46, with 7:55 to go and seemed in good shape. Then came a 16-4 Canisius run, featuring seven points apiece from Barley and Damone James. It was capped when Wise stole an errant pass and drove the length of the court for a slam with 1:54 to go that made the score 62-62 and electrified the several dozen Canisius fans in the crowd of about 3,000.
"To finally tie it up, a lot of emotion went through my mind," Wise said. "It was like, 'We finally got it where we want it.' I'm really happy for the fact that everybody played so hard on our team . . . You could see everybody get down on the floor and get fired up."
"That's been the story of so many games," said Beilein, whose club won five games this year by wiping out double-digit deficits. "We get behind and sometimes we expend that effort and come back to win it."
Barley led Canisius with 17 points, while Young and James -- who was rewarded for his four-year career with a start in his final game -- added 11 each. Wise had only nine on 4-of-13 shooting.
Amaechi and Earl led Penn State with 17 points each. The Nittany Lions shot 17 of 25 from the field in the first half and 24 of 44 for the game. Canisius was 25 of 64 overall and just 6 of 23 from three-point range.
"It's just too bad somebody had to go back home with two losses," said Penn State coach Bruce Parkhill. "Canisius is a terrific team, winners in every sense of the word."
It's hard to argue that point in a season in which the Griffs fell one win shy of the school record and beat teams from 11 different conferences.
"Everybody wants to go out a winner and only three teams do," Wise said. "I still feel we went out a winner even though we lost tonight."
An emotional Beilein put his arms around Wise and James during a postgame news conference and echoed the sentiment.
"Not just as long as I've been coaching, which has been 20 years, but probably in Canisius history this has been a very unique team," he said. "We've had some terrific teams at our school way back but I would put these guys against any of them. This was a special group."