NEW YORK – It will be the last time Michigan’s starting five steps onto the court as a unit.
The collection of seniors Daniel Horton, Sherrod Harrell, Graham Brown, Chris Hunter and redshirt junior Lester Abram has started each of the Wolverines’ NIT games, and the group will run onto the court at Madison Square Garden one final time to face South Carolina in the NIT championship game at 7 p.m. tonight.
“I’m biased to our seniors,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I’m very much attached to that group of players. They are the type of players you always want in your program. They have done anything and everything we have asked them to do.”
Ever since the Wolverines slid down the stretch of the regular season, losing seven of nine to eliminate themselves from NCAA Tournament consideration, Amaker has made it a point to put the burden on the seniors to refocus the team.
“I thought I owed that to our kids and our program,” Amaker said. “When we got into this tournament, we told those guys we were going to go as far as they take us.”
The decision has paid off so far. In the NIT, the Wolverines have bounced back from their late-season skid and turned the corner. With the seniors setting the tone, Michigan has returned to the defensive intensity that helped it jump out to a 16-3 record at the beginning of the season.
Now, the seniors have a chance to end their careers as Wolverines with a victory. They’ll face a South Carolina team that easily dispatched Louisville, 78-63, in the other semifinal game Tuesday night.
“This is the best way to end (your career), playing a meaningful game in one of the best arenas in the world and one of the greatest cities in the world for a championship,” Hunter said. “It’s great.”
The Gamecocks and Wolverines each bring eight-game NIT winning streaks into tonight’s contest. Michigan (22-10) has continued its winning ways in the NIT after taking the crown two years ago. South Carolina has advanced to its second straight NIT final. Last season, the Gamecocks won the championship when they defeated St. Joseph’s, 60-57.
“We realize that our challenge is going to be a very difficult one with a good South Carolina team,” Amaker said. “Just watching them compete and play (Tuesday) night, this is a team that is on the verge of many good things this season.”
South Carolina (22-15) has relied on the senior leadership of Tarence Kinsey. After hitting the game-winning shot in last year’s NIT final, the 6-foot-6 guard averaged 15 points per game this season and provided the spark to propel the Gamecocks into tonight’s contest.
“(Kinsey) obviously gives us points and excellent defense and timely rebounds,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “In 365 days, what has happened to that guy in the last year, from a basketball standpoint, has really been amazing. He is hitting more pressure shots more often.”
For Michigan, ups and downs have continued to haunt the team that looked so promising early in the year.
After the Wolverines discovered they did not make the NCAA Tournament field, Amaker told his team that even though they didn’t finish strong, they still had an opportunity to finish right.
The Michigan seniors have taken their coach’s words to heart.
In Michigan’s four NIT games, the starting five has set the tone for the rest of the team and the game.
“The seniors are out there, and they could be playing in their last game,” Brown said. “They go out and try to set the tempo for the rest of the guys. We go out there and play as hard as we can for a couple of minutes. . We go out there and try to set the tempo, and everyone else on our team kind of follows from that.”