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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - The Battle for Delaware

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Rec Hall
Penn State

For this week’s article I’m taking a deep breath and writing about one of my (essentially) favorite topics: The Pennsylvania State University. Specifically, the 1989-90 Penn State men's basketball season which featured an epic 2-game sequence during the 1990 NIT against future B1G 'rivals' Maryland and Rutgers.

To say Penn State basketball had limited success heading into the 1989-90 season would be an understatement. The Nittany Lions had a total of 5 NCAA Tournament appearances going into this season, the most recent of which was in 1965. (It should be noted that Penn State played in the 1954 Final Four.) Penn State had also played in 3 NITs: 1966, 1980, and 1989.

For the 1989-90 season Penn State went 20-7 in the regular season, including a home win against #23 Temple. This earned the Nittany Lions a second-place finish in the Atlantic 10 (basketball) Conference. In the Atlantic 10 Tournament Penn State defeated George Washington, but lost to John Calipari's UMass in the next round. This earned Penn State an invitation to the 1990 NIT. In the NIT first round Penn State knocked off Marquette, setting up a potential rematch with UMass. However, a funny thing happened 190 miles from State College: Maryland (in Gary Williams' first season at his alma mater) knocked off UMass; setting up Round 1 of the 1990 Battle for Delaware.

On March 19, 1990 Maryland made the trip up Route 322 to State College to take on Penn State in the NIT Second Round. Maryland was 18-14 in Gary Williams first season and earned an appearance in the NIT coming off of a 20-loss season for 1988-89 (which got Bob Wade out of College Park). In a tight game at Rec Hall, Maryland thought they had tied the game when Jerod Mustaf hit a deep jumper. However, the referees ruled the basket a 2-pointer w/ 16 seconds to go. Maryland didn’t realize the basket had been ruled a 2-pointer until several seconds later. The Terps fouled Penn State to get the ball back; however, the Nittany Lions held on for an 80-78 victory over their ‘rivals’ to the south. This turned out to be the only matchup between Penn State and Maryland during Gary Williams tenure in College Park (w/ Gary going 0-1 against the Nittany Lions).

Meanwhile, in a New York City metro battle, Rutgers traveled to Fordham knocking off the Rams 81-74; setting up a rubber match against Penn State in Piscataway (Rutgers and Penn State had split their regular-season match-ups with each team winning at home). In another tight game Penn State jumped out to an early, with Rutgers overtaking the Nittany Lions to get a 34-29 halftime lead. In the second half, Penn State managed to take a lead late and hold on for a 58-55 victory.

Penn State advanced to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semi-Finals. However, the Nittany Lions lost to Vanderbilt 75-62. In the third-place consolation game Penn State knocked off New Mexico 83-81. This proved to be a spring-board for the Nittany Lions, as they earned their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 26 years for 1990-91, upsetting #4 seed UCLA in the first round and losing to Eastern Michigan in overtime in the Round of 32.

The Nittany Lions would have several other trips to the NIT Finals in New York City in 1995, 1998, 2000, and 2009. Of note would be 1998 where Penn State lost to fellow Big 10 member Minnesota in the NIT Finals; and 2009 when the Nittany Lions claimed the NIT Title. However, in a way these post-season appearances were kick-started by claiming the Battle for Delaware in 1990.

2009 NIT Champion Penn State
Frank Franklin / Associated Press

So far, here’s where things stand on the Historical Perspective articles. More will be on the way:

Maryland Part 1 and Part 2

Illinois

Rutgers

Iowa

Michigan

Indiana

Purdue