The norm in March is that our spectacular finishes traditionally come in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe even conference tournaments. March Madness knows no boundaries, though, and while the National Invitation Tournament isn’t normally thought of as the home for of the amazing, on Wednesday it furnished what should go down as one of the signature moments of the 2015 tournament season.
Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman banked in a running 30-footer at the buzzer for a 72-69 win over Murray State in the quarterfinals that sends the Monarchs to Madison Square Garden next week. The shot capped a wild final 3 1/2 minutes, in which the Racers had rallied from a 10-point deficit and just tied the game on a three-pointer by Jeffery Moss.
ODU went 94 feet in 3.5 seconds for the winning points, with Freeman providing the final of his 25 points in what was a superb performance. Freeman was the best player on the floor, and that’s saying something when a game includes Cameron Payne. Incredibly, he played just 12 minutes two nights earlier when an ankle injury all but completely sidelined him in the Monarchs’ slim 50-49 win over Illinois State.
It cannot be said enough: Jeff Jones has done an outstanding job at Old Dominion. From 5-25 two years ago to 18 wins last year to the brink of an NCAA Tournament at-large berth and an NIT semifinal appearance. A program that was a consistent winner through the first part of the century appears to be right back to where it was, with a very bright future.
And how heartbreaking for Murray State. The Racers’ last two losses came on a last-second fall-away three-pointer in the OVC Tournament championship game and on a 30-foot bank shot at the buzzer in the NIT quarterfinals. The latter capped a 29-6 season with a 25-game winning streak, a national ranking at one point and an All-American-level guard in Payne. NCAA Tournament or not, it was most certainly a memorable season for another program that already is accustomed to winning.
- Also joining Old Dominion, Miami (Fla.) and Stanford in the NIT semifinals was Temple, which pulled away from Louisiana Tech for a 77-59 victory. The Owls were convincing and impressive in beating the Bulldogs for the second time this season, and have to be the favorite to win it all at MSG.
- The final two teams standing in the CBI are Loyola (Ill.) and Louisiana-Monroe. The Ramblers ended a nice run by Seattle with a 63-48 win, while ULM outlasted Vermont 71-65. The two teams now will play a best-of-three championship series beginning Monday in Chicago.
- Much like Loyola (and Louisiana-Monroe too for that matter), Tennessee-Martin continues a season that has been more than anyone with the school could’ve asked for in the first year under coach Heath Schroyer. The Skyhawks are now in the CIT semifinals after a 70-69 win over fellow OVC school Eastern Kentucky. With Murray State, Belmont and EKU all in the postseason, incredibly it is UTM that is the last team still playing.
- UNC Charlotte has a press conference scheduled for Thursday to announce its new head coach, and all reports are it will be former Georgia Tech and NBA star Mark Price. As far as buzz factor goes, the 49ers are knocking it out of the park, as Price was a much-beloved pro player with the Cleveland Cavaliers and also has pro experience as an assistant with the Charlotte Bobcats.
- Nevada has hired Eric Musselman as its new coach. The son of former longtime coach Bill Musselman and a former NBA head coach and recently an assistant at Arizona State and LSU, Musselman has had a Larry Brown-like career with a number of coaching stops at almost every level imaginable.
- Transfer news from Wednesday: Memphis sophomores Nick King and Pookie Powell are both leaving the school. King averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, while Powell had averages of 4.3 points and 2.7 assists. Indiana sophomore guard Stanford Robinson is leaving after averaging 3.0 ppg this season. King, Powell and Robinson all were one-time top 100 recruits. Also, the Arizona Republic reports that Arizona State freshman center Connor McDougall plans to leave. McDougall averaged 2.0 ppg in limited action in six games this past season.
- LSU sophomore forward Jarell Martin officially declared for the NBA Draft on Wednesday. Martin averaged 16.9 points and 9.2 rebounds this year.
- After a couple days break, the NCAA Tournament returns with regional semifinal games tonight in the Midwest and West regions. Undefeated Kentucky will face No. 5 seed West Virginia in one Midwest semi in what should be a fascinating matchup. WVU hammers the boards as well as anyone; unfortunately, it seems the talent difference is just too much, and it’s hard to imagine the Mountaineers getting many easy baskets in this one, even with the press. The other regional semi in Cleveland is a fascinating matchup featuring Notre Dame and Wichita State. The Fighting Irish did enough to get by in their first two NCAA tourney games, while the Shockers were one of the most impressive teams of the first two rounds. WSU is most certainly March-tested and tough enough to win, but just not sure if consistent enough shooting to continue further.
- The West has top seed Wisconsin against North Carolina and No. 2 Arizona against Xavier. The Badgers and Wildcats should be solid favorites to meet again for what would be a titanic regional final matchup. UNC is likely without Kennedy Meeks, though the Badgers played with fire a bit against Oregon and have struggled at times this year against very athletic teams. But how will the Tar Heels handle it when Wisconsin inevitably pulls the tempo to its own liking? Arizona is just the better team in the second game. It will be intriguing to see what tempo the game is played at; the Musketeers have looked really good this year when they get up and down the floor. X can stay in the game with the three-pointer, and Matt Stainbrook will have to be big, but the Wildcats have so many ways to win and it’s hard to imagine all of them struggling. But funnier things have happened in the Sweet 16 before.
- Another quarterfinal game in the CIT as Evansville goes to Louisiana-Lafayette. The Purple Aces have a chance to continue an outstanding postseason for the MVC, which is 9-2 in tournament play.
Have a great Thursday.