NEW YORK — This Tuesday evening “The World’s Most Famous Arena” played host to the NIT Tournament Semi-finals. With The Garden playing host to NCAA Tournament games last weekend, the NIT Tournament Semi-Finals didn’t make a concerted effort to follow up an exciting slate of games, as games lacked intensity and Madison Square Garden laid nearly empty.
Georgia Tech vs. Cal State Bakersfield:
In the first game of the night, Georgia Tech handily defeated Cal State Bakersfield by the score of 76-61 in what was an ugly game for fans to watch.
ACC Defensive Player of the Year Ben Lammers had 15 points and 11 boards while Freshman guard Josh Okogie added a game-high 22 points, earning praise from his coach.
“Josh O has just been terrific all year.” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He is such a high-character young man. His work ethic is just awesome, and he’s just gotten better and better and better, and he’s playing the best basketball of his freshman year right now.”
Senior forward Quinton Stephens also had a solid night as he dropped 13 points and collected nine rebounds. Tonight though for Stephens was bittersweet, as his collegiate career will now come to an end on Thursday night. But, being at Madison Square Garden makes his bittersweet moment even sweeter.
“To be able to play my last game in Madison Square Garden is great,” said Stephens. “You can’t but help to love playing here, It’s a basketball players dream.”
TCU vs. UCF:
The second game of the night was more bearable as the TCU Horned Frogs squared off with 7-foot 6-inch Taco Fall and the UCF Golden Knights. After a close game at the half, TCU head coach Jamie Dixon and TCU earned a date with Georgia Tech on Thursday for the NIT Championship by pulling away from UCF and winning 68-53.
After playing poorly in the first half, the Horned Frogs transformed into the team that beat Kansas two weeks ago and pulled away with the lead behind a gutty performance by Junior guard Kenrich Williams, who had a monster double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds.
“First half, we didn’t play too well, but we were playing hard,” said Williams. “You just go out there and do what you’ve gotta do, and that’s what we did tonight.” Williams certainly did that as his performance helped push his team to victory.
After winning tonight with TCU, Jamie Dixon has proved once again that he is one of the best coaches ever to coach at Madison Square Garden. While at Pitt, Dixon earned the “Coach of the Decade” award, as Dixon won multiple games with Pitt at The Garden, an arena dear to his heart.
“I love this place,” professed Dixon. “I guess (I’m) a New Yorker by parents, but it’s special.”
Dixon also added that his love for Madison Square Garden was part of the reason why TCU ran away with the game late.
“I tried to get the message across to our players how special playing Madison Square Garden is and how important it is, the history, and get it across,” said Dixon. “I think they sensed how important and how much it meant to me, and I appreciate them for recognizing that and understanding my connection with New York.”
Thursday night will feature two coaches, one a veteran and the other an up-and-comer, who are in their first year in their respective programs. For Pastner, getting to the NIT Championship is “a modern miracle.” For Dixon, going to the NIT Championship is a testament to how hard his team has worked despite the tough circumstances in years past.
Georgia Tech and TCU are both in the process of rebuilding, and both teams have had successful seasons. Thursday night will showcase a battle of arguably the two best rebuilding teams in the country. Georgia Tech and their stifling defense will look to slow down the unselfish offense of TCU in what looks to be a must-see final.
TCU versus Georgia Tech. Pastner versus Dixon.
Madison Square Garden. Get your popcorn ready, everyone.