FRISCO, Texas — For the University of Memphis Tigers, the season is done, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) has been won and head coach Penny Hardaway already is peeking ahead at what could come after the championship run.
“I am so excited for the boys for the way they have worked all year,” Hardaway said after the Tigers ran away from the Mississippi State Bulldogs 77-64 to claim the NIT crown. “We tried to be great and they met the challenge. It wasn’t easy. Every day was a grind. I never let up because I wanted them to be great.
“It is a championship not only for us, but for the school and the city. It is a huge start to where we want to go.”
That destination is a long-sought return to the NCAA Tournament and a chance to win the coveted “Big Dance” title. The Tigers came close but didn’t net a NCAA bid in the pandemic affected, roller coaster of a season.
“It is very gratifying,” Hardaway said of the NIT title. “We have to thank God for the opportunity. To be here now from where we started is a blessing. These kids started to figure out it is not all about me. It is about my brother and me.”
The Tigers got off to a blistering start, scoring the first 13 points of the game and not allowing the Bulldogs a basket until 12:42 was left in the half. Memphis’ trademark defense ignited the run as the Tigers (20-8) forced five turnovers and swatted away two shots.
The Bulldogs pushed back, weathered Memphis’ response and then mounted a 19-8 run to end the half tied at 33 with the Tigers. The Bulldogs were happy to be tied, Memphis was looking for answers as to why the game was tied.
Foul trouble was a culprit. Two fouls each sent DeAndre Williams and Malcolm to the bench with eight-plus minutes left in the half. Add to that the Tigers only shot 29 percent from the floor, while the Bulldogs finished the half connecting at 42 percent.
The Tigers started the second half with another run and with 16:09 left in the game they led by three (40-37). That’s as close as the Bulldogs got to the Tigers the rest of the way. Memphis improved its shooting in the second half (67 percent) and turned the defensive intensity up even higher.
Boogie Ellis led the Tigers’ scoring punch with 23 points. Landers Nolley II, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, had 10 points. Lester Quinones contributed eight points and ripped a career-high 16 rebounds. D.J. Jeffries came up big with 15 points and DeAndre Williams had 12 points.
“This is one of the most talented teams I have ever played on,” Quinones said. “Everybody on this roster has something to give. I feel other things think it is a mismatch at every position. No one on this team feels like they can be guarded. It felt like an All-Star team.
“We came closer together off the court. We decided to let the game come to every single person.”
Nolley, who tends not display much public emotion, showed more than has been his tendency. On his feeling about winning the NIT championship and the MVP trophy, Nolley said, “For me it has been a journey … to put my trust into a new organization. The guys just having my back, what else can I say.
“This feeling is unreal. If you had told me we would be NIT champs at the end of the season, I would have told you that you were lying.”
Memphis point guard Alex Lomax, who missed the Tigers stretch’ run after an injury, played the last 40 seconds of the game.
“We wanted everybody to play when it got down to the end,” Hardaway said. “We want everybody to do well, and everyone has contributed to this. Alo has been through everything with me as a player. I know it was killing him not to be able to play. Those 40 seconds meant the world to him. He kept the guys level-headed during practices and games.”
NOTES AND NEXT:
- For Hardaway, it was his third 20-win season since taking over as the head coach at the university where he starred before finding pro-level stardom in the NBA.
- The Tigers’ D.J. Jeffries and the Bulldogs’ Cameron Matthews were teammates at Olive Branch High School. Matthews led Mississippi state with 19 points and six rebounds.
- The Tigers have other NIT championship to their credit. They won in 2002 under John Calipari. They placed third in 2001 and were runners-up in 1957.
- With the new NCAA transfer rules, there is no guarantee that this Memphis team will come back intact. While everyone is eligible to return, the transfer portal and the NBA may be enticing options for some. Nolley said the team would get together in a week or so without the coaches to decide their fate as “a family.”