Penn State football coach Joe Paterno stood in the underbelly of Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night after the Nittany Lions' 67-59 victory over Notre Dame in the NIT semifinals and lit up when he saw his favorite player -- sophomore point guard Talor Battle. "I remember when you came up for a visit and I told [Ed] DeChellis, 'You want that kid? He's too short!'" he crowed.
At 5-foot-11 ("I'm six feet with my shoes on" Battle protests), Battle stands out. Short guards have always found a way into our hearts. But most small guards have a similar style -- driving the basket, making crisp passes with excellent court vision. Battle? He just plays ugly.
Battle's signature way to go through the lane involves a crossover, followed by a bounce off of one defender, crashing into another, squeezing inside and making a layup -- just as he looks as he's about to fall. Then he puffs out his chest and acknowledges the crowd.
"I've been doing that my whole life," Battle said. "Me and my little brother, since we've been young, when we attack the run, we try to attack the rim and throw it up there and when we would jump in there's no way we would make it. Now that I'm getting stronger, I can finish."
Awkward buzzer-beaters also seem to be popular with Battle. This season, he's topped Illinois with a fadeway hook shot over two defenders with two seconds remaining, and against George Mason in the NIT he used his lightening-fast quickness to get a shot off that would make Buzz Braman wince.
"Fortunately I've been hitting them," Battle said. "I've actually been in the top 10 [on Sportscenter] a few times.
Ugly or not, it seems to be working. As he grows -- at least in strength and skill, Penn State is getting stronger too. With the addition of Battle and junior college transfer Stanley Pringle, the Nittany Lions improved from 11-19 to 15-16 in 2008. This season they finished the regular season 10-8 and fourth in the Big Ten behind Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State, earning DeChellis conference coach of the year honors. On Thursday, they have a chance to win the NIT title against Baylor.
"This was a goal we had. When things didn't go well for us [with the NCAA tournament selection], we told them we had a chance to win a championship," DeChellis said. "This will be another first for us. I'm not going to see the seniors go without giving it our best shot."
When his team battles Baylor for the NIT title, Battle may face some of the toughest defense of the tournament -- at least two inches taller and a 40 pounds heavier, Bears guard Curtis Jerells could make life a little tough for Battle. But Battle's gone up against bigger players all his life -- and like most teams looking to build momentum next season with an NIT win, he said he's not going home without capping Penn State's statement run the right way.
"This run is just going to help us [next season]," Battle said. "After we win the championship on Thursday I mean."