NIT Final Four
by Phil Kasiecki
While the NCAA Tournament has had its usual exciting and unpredictable games, the NIT has seen its field narrowed to its own Final Four teams, with some exciting games of its own. After mid-majors made a statement earlier in the tournament, Madison Square Garden awaits four teams from high-major conferences. Additionally, several games this week featured more turnovers than games in earlier rounds, though turnovers were a key in a few games.
Syracuse was the first team to make it to the NIT Final Four, scoring a close overtime win over Butler, 66-65, and following it by dominating in the paint behind freshman Hakim Warrick en route to a 62-46 win over Richmond after the Spiders surprised Minnesota.
In knocking off Butler, Syracuse rode Preston Shumpert’s 36-point night on 12 of 19 shooting from the field, including making five of seven three-pointers. The Orangemen beat Butler on the glass, owning the boards with a 41-26 margin and many contributing to it. At the defensive end, they shut down Brandon Miller and Thomas Jackson, as the two were a combined 9 for 25 from the field, and Ryan Hainje, the team’s leading scorer, couldn’t get going as he made just two of nine. Jackson came in shooting just over 48% from the field on the season, Hainje over 49%. After struggling early and allowing the Bulldogs to open a 35-22 lead in the first half, the Orangemen really turned it up in the extra session, as the Bulldogs never made a field goal.
South Carolina followed by first knocking off UNLV, then blowing out Ball State 82-47. The Gamecocks beat the Runnin’ Rebels at the free throw line and from shooting the ball better in a turnover-filled game (the teams combined for 37 turnovers) Scoring balance helped as well, as Chuck Eidson’s 18 points led five players in double figures. The quarterfinal against Ball State was never in doubt, as the Gamecocks led 48-12 at the half and shot 50% while holding the Cardinals below 30% shooting and forced 22 turnovers.
Temple became the third team to advance after the beat cross-town rival Villanova on Friday by a score of 63-57 without star point guard Lynn Greer, who sprained his ankle three nights before when they beat Louisville. The Owls took great care of the ball with just three turnovers against Villanova, and it was enough to get the win in a game where both teams shot below 40% from the field. Villanova had 14 turnovers – a modest game for the turnover-prone Wildcats – but didn’t make up for it elsewhere. Temple’s great job of taking care of the ball was the big key, and it helped against Louisville three nights prior when they had just seven turnovers. In the game against Louisville, Temple shot better, but was out-rebounded in a game where no one tried to get to the foul line: both teams took eight free throws.
The final game played for a trip to the NIT Final Four was a dandy on Saturday between intrastate rivals Memphis and Tennessee Tech, with the Tigers surviving by a 79-73 score in Memphis. The Tigers had a big second half and shot nearly 47% from the field while holding the Golden Eagles to under 40% shooting, and they beat them on the glass.