The players flooded off the Wichita State bench, jumping together near the corner of the floor. Gregg Marshall smiled and pumped his fist. A few thousand fans dressed in yellow stood on their feet, cheering for a championship.
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Good luck convincing any of them that they didn’t deserve it.
Or that they didn’t belong in a more prestigious postseason tournament.
J.T. Durley and Graham Hatch scored 12 points each to lead a balanced offense, and the fourth-seeded Shockers simply overwhelmed top-seeded Alabama 66-57 on Thursday night to win the NIT championship at Madison Square Garden.
Hatch was 4 for 4 from beyond the arc, including back-to-back shots in the closing minutes, as Wichita State (29-8) finished up a remarkable postseason run in style.
”We obviously, as a team, have gone through a roller coaster,” Hatch said. ”We came back from those disappointments, we pulled together, and it’s just magical. It’s unbelievable.”
After getting left out of the NCAA tournament – and after hardly any critics argued on their behalf – the Shockers left little doubt they should have been selected. They beat Nebraska by 27 points, won at Virginia Tech, beat College of Charleston, then set a school record for wins in a season with a 75-44 romp over Washington State in the semifinals.
They added one more victory against the Crimson Tide.
”Give them credit. They made the plays they needed to make,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who plans to return home and watch his former team, VCU, play in the Final Four this weekend. The Rams face Butler on Saturday.
”I’m really proud of what our guys were able to accomplish over the course of the season,” Grant said. ”We grew, and we learned over the course of the year, and I think as a basketball team we got better, and really as a coach, that’s what you want to be able to do.”
Tony Mitchell had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Alabama (25-12), though he didn’t get much help. Leading scorer JaMychal Green struggled with foul trouble and finished with 12 points, and Trevor Releford and Charvez Davis had 10 each.
”JaMychal is a key player to our team, he’s a threat inside,” Davis said. ”We had to keep playing when he got out. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Alabama briefly pulled ahead in the second half on a free throw by Chris Hines with 15:06 left, but Wichita State answered with eight straight points to regain control.
Green went to the bench with his fourth foul during the run, and the lead never fell below five points the rest of the way, even when he finally checked back in.
Any doubt about the outcome was erased when Hatch hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4:13 remaining that extended the lead to 61-52. On the Shockers’ next possession, Hatch set up from the same spot and knocked down another 3-pointer.
The two clutch shots helped him earn the tournament MVP award.
”The ball was in the air forever, literally, it seemed to me,” Marshall said of the two 3-pointers. ”The ball with its arc, the majestic rotation, and it found the bottom of the net.”
Both teams certainly wish they’d made the NCAA tournament, but they took advantage of the chance to keep playing through March. They both brought pep bands and cheerleaders, along with a couple thousand fans, despite visiting arguably the most expensive city in the country.
They were loud throughout, too, with dueling chants of ”Go Shockers” and ”Roll Tide.”
The two teams sure played as if they belonged in the other, more prestigious postseason tournament in the first half. They combined to shoot 50 percent from the field, made all 14 of their combined foul shots and played well enough on defense to force 18 turnovers.
Wichita State managed a 37-34 lead largely because it got the pace going in its favor. The Crimson Tide came in allowing just over 59 points per game, eighth-best in the nation, while the Shockers are 15-0 the past three-plus seasons under Marshall when they score 80 points.
They didn’t get there this time. It turned out they didn’t need to.
”A special group of guys that deserves everything they have coming,” said Marshall, noting his team shot 50 percent for the game. ”We’re going to play defense and we’re going to rebound, and when the ball goes through the basket at that type of clip, we can play with anyone.”
They proved that earlier in the year, too.
Wichita State led Connecticut for about 37 minutes at the Maui Invitational, then lost to VCU on a last-second free throw in a Bracketbusters game. The Shockers also lost a tough game to San Diego State, which earned a No. 2 seed to the NCAA tournament.
The Shockers returned four starters from a team that lost in the NIT last season, and were the class of the Missouri Valley much of the year. They wound up losing to eventual champion Indiana State in the league tournament, though, and a down year for the conference hurt their chances of an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
They made the most of their chance to play in the NIT.
”This is what you do it for, these moments,” Hatch said with a smile. ”We were disappointed in our conference tournament, so to have this opportunity to win such an amazing tournament as the NIT, this atmosphere, I couldn’t imagine it.”