It has been a historic March for college basketball.
With each round of the NCAA Tournament, a new television viewing record is set. It is a testament to the depth and parity of the sport this year.
With that depth and parity came an unusual number of very talented teams left out of the Big Dance this year.
Their loss was the N.I.T.’s gain.
The Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament consisted of Miami, Temple, Stanford and Old Dominion. Four teams that could have easily slipped in the NCAA Tournament ahead of a team like, say, UCLA, had the Selection Committee been so inclined.
Regardless, it is a testament to these teams that none of them sulked after being snubbed from the Big Dance, which happens more often than not.
In spirited Tuesday night semifinal games, Miami and Stanford advanced to the Final with hard fought wins over Temple and Old Dominion, respectively.
Miami rode the back of Sheldon McClellan’s 16 point, 11 rebound performance, while holding Temple to a 30% shooting night, to beat the Owls, 60-57 and reach Thursday night’s championship game.
Stanford jumped out to leads of 14-0 and 25-4 over Old Dominion to start their semifinal, only to have the Monarchs storm back to make a game of it by halftime. The Cardinal was able to hold on in the second frame despite falling behind briefly at the midway point.
Stanford prevailed, 67-60, led by Chasson Randle’s 24 points.
The Final figured to be an evenly matched ballgame. Two teams that looked like NCAA Tournament locks early in the season.
They did not disappoint.
Stanford controlled the game in the first half, taking a 32-21 lead over Miami into the intermission.
However, the Hurricanes stormed back in front of a loud pro-Miami crowd inside Madison Square Garden.
The Canes tied the game at 53-53 on two Omar Sherman free throws with 3:27 left in regulation. After Randle and McClellan traded two baskets and four free throws, the game fittingly went to overtime.
In OT Miami clawed to a 64-61 lead on a Davon Reed layup with 1:03 to go. But the Cardinal refused to lose, as Randle again took over, making four free throws down the stretch including two after drawing a shooting foul on Reed with 3 seconds left in the extra period.
Stanford held on for a 66-64 victory and with it the 2015 N.I.T. championship.
Randle led the Cardinal with 25 points, while McClellan paced Miami with 17.
“How many teams are going to win championships this year?” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins asked rhetorically. “Not many.”
He went on: “Of course, there was disappointment that we didn’t make the Tournament, like there were for a lot of teams. We felt like a lot of teams…we were a bubble team and it could’ve gone our way just as easy as it went for some of the other teams that were in there.”
It was that attitude that kept Stanford from hanging their heads and allowed them to win their second N.I.T. championship in four years.