NEW YORK — For two nights, the World’s Most Famous Arena belonged to Wichita State. The Shockers own the souvenirs to prove it.
WSU completed an impressive run through the National Invitation Tournament with a 66-57 win over Alabama on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The Shockers won the school’s first national tournament and enjoyed all the perks in their celebration on the court.
“I’m never going to forget it,” WSU senior J.T. Durley said. “I’m a champion. We’re tough, and we pulled it out.”
The Shockers (29-8) cut down a net, each player saving a piece. Coach Gregg Marshall made the final snip, removed it from the rim and twirled it in jubilation for the fans to see. Friends and family on both sides of the court took pictures and video of the players in their NIT champion shirts.
Junior David Kyles danced. Players and coaches hugged and mingled with fans while Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played in the background.
“A great trip to New York,” WSU junior Garrett Stutz said. “The biggest thing is we are always going to remember this day.”
Nobody provided better memories than senior Graham Hatch, named the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player. Hatch sank two three-pointers, both from the top of the key, to snuff out the Crimson Tide (25-12) in the final minutes. The first, on a pass from Stutz, gave WSU a 61-52 lead with 4:17 to play. After Alabama missed three shots, Hatch’s next three made it 12 points with 3:05 remaining.
“My shot felt so good tonight,” Hatch said. “I was never so confident shooting the ball than I was tonight.”
Coaches and teammates will say that confidence comes from four years of practice, wearing out managers, rebounding machines and coaches with extra shooting drills.
“In 26 years, I’ve seen a lot of players and I can’t tell you one that’s worked harder than Graham Hatch,” Marshall said.
Alabama isn’t built for comebacks. Hatch’s lefty shots made the final three minutes a buildup to WSU’s party in the Big Apple.
“It’s a game-changer,” Alabama guard Trevor Releford said. “He just kept hitting them.”
So did many of the Shockers. They survived 19 turnovers by making 50 percent of their shots and 7 of 15 threes against the tournament’s best defensive reputation. Alabama hadn’t allowed a team to shoot better than 50 percent since a loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“They made some wide-open shots,” Alabama guard Charvez Davis said.
Hatch made all four of his threes to finish with 12 points. Durley scored 12. Aaron Ellis and Stutz each added eight.
WSU’s changing defenses kept the Tide from finding a rhythm and forced them to shoot from the outside. Alabama needs to score in the lane, on fast breaks and on putbacks to be successful.
“Their depth, size and physicality was just too much for us,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “We had success going inside and attacking them at the rim. They took those things away from us.”
The Shockers knew they broke Alabama when Releford missed a three with 3:35 to play. The Tide, down by nine, couldn’t score in the lane. Three-pointers aren’t their strength, and the Shockers made them a jump-shooting team and limited them to 2-of-14 shooting from behind the arc.
“Our whole game plan was to make them shoot tough, contested threes,” Durley said. “Their best offense is going to get it off the glass after a miss.”
Marshall commanded the whiteboard in the cramped locker room after the celebration. He wrote Big 12, ACC, Southern, Pac-10 and SEC, representing the conferences conquered by WSU in the NIT. Then he crossed them off as the Shockers cheered.
With that, the Shockers exited Madison Square Garden to celebrate the school’s first national tournament trophy.