STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Driving into this sleepy college town, billboards proclaiming the area "Hoops Valley" seem almost comical.
This is Happy Valley, home of Joe Paterno and Penn State football - where the locals say you can't spell Nittany without NIT.
But Penn State's upset of North Carolina on Sunday put the Nittany Lions into the final 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 46 years, a feat Paterno called "one of the memorable highlights of our athletic program in my 51 years here."
"We're giant-slayers," said Jon Crispin, who had five points and three steals in Penn State's 82-74 victory over the second-seed Tar Heels. "I think the way we're playing now we're one of the toughest teams in the country."
This from a team that lost to Northwestern, that was on the NCAA bubble just two weeks ago. Even more surprising, this from a team hardly anyone expected to succeed - except themselves.
"I just didn't think they'd get past Providence in the first round," Jeremy Bennett, a Penn State senior, said. "The normal Penn State couldn't beat Carolina in basketball. Football? Bring 'em on. But not basketball."
Penn State plays an exciting style of basketball, averaging 77 points per game by getting out in transition and firing 3-pointers from anywhere on the floor. But even after upsetting Kentucky on the road and beating in-state rivals Pittsburgh and Temple, they had trouble attracting fans. On average, almost 5,000 seats were empty at each home game this year.
"Really, Pennsylvania is not a basketball state," coach Jerry Dunn said. "It's not like Indiana or North Carolina, where kids grow up and basketball is part of their life. Here, it's more football and wrestling. When kids think Penn State, they think football."
It's not that basketball is unknown here. For more than 20 years, Rene Portland has coached one of the nation's most successful women's basketball programs, earning No. 1 rankings in the 1990-91 and '93-94 seasons and reaching the Final Four last year.
But this year, it's been the men's team carrying the load. The football team finished 5-7 and failed to reach a bowl game for just the second time since Paterno arrived in 1950. The Lady Lions lost their last three games, and their 77-75 loss to TCU was the biggest first-round upset in the NCAA women's tournament.
Men's basketball, on the other hand, has redefined the pressure game, beating then-No. 6 Illinois in overtime two months ago, then winning 78-73 at Iowa on March 1 in what was considered a make-or-break game for the Nittany Lions' NCAA hopes. But they played their way back to the bubble by blowing a 20-point lead at home against Ohio State.
Their NCAA bid still on the line, Penn State needed a dunk from Gyasi Cline-Heard with 0.3 seconds left to avoid overtime against Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, then beat then-No. 2 Michigan State 65-63 on Joe Crispin's 3-pointer with 21 seconds left.
Sunday's game looked more like the Kentucky game, with Penn State controlling most of the second half and holding off a late run to preserve the win.
The final 16 is the farthest Penn State has advanced in the NCAA tournament since Jesse Arnelle - still the school's all-time leading scorer - led the Nittany Lions to the Final Four in 1954 and to the East Regional final in 1955.
"As someone who was around when Penn State reached the Final Four, I consider this weekend's performance in New Orleans one of the memorable highlights of our athletic program in my 51 years here," said Paterno, who watched Sunday's game.
"Getting to the Sweet 16 is a great accomplishment, but I know Jerry and his team want to keep playing."
And they expect to keep winning. Joe Crispin, who led the Big Ten in scoring and scored 21 against North Carolina, said the Nittany Lions still have room to improve. In beating the Tar Heels, Penn State hit just 31 of 71 field goals (43.7 percent), including just 7 of 26 3-point tries (26.9 percent).
"We can still play better," Joe Crispin said. "We beat a great team, but we didn't have that great a shooting night."
And those fans who haven't been entirely loyal are beginning to convert, even thinking the unthinkable - a trip to the Final Four and beyond.
"They've ruined my bracket," said Penn State senior Dave Lipomi. "Don't get me wrong, we're still rooting for them. And I'll gladly take the $15 hit if they go on to win the national championship."
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