The Memphis Tigers secured the second NIT championship in program history over the weekend, defeating Mississippi State 77-64 in the championship game. They seemingly got stronger as the tournament went on, turning in a dominant effort in the semifinal victory over Colorado State before controlling most of the title game vs the Bulldogs. Landers Nolley was named most outstanding player for the tournament while Lester Quinones nabbed a spot on the all-tournament team.
An NIT championship is obviously not as sweet as an NCAA tournament run, but it is still something tangible to point to and build upon moving forward. There was a point this season where this team was objectively just not fun to watch. They struggled with turnovers, took errant shots and generally just had poor body language when they took the floor. Kudos to everyone involved for turning their season around and ending it on a high note.
“It just feels amazing,” Lester Quinones said. “This team has been through so much throughout the year; so many ups and downs. We really came together and just started to buy in. I feel like we really deserved this because we worked hard all year. This is one of the most talented teams I’ve ever played with and this is just a scary team to be on because we’re so talented.”
The focus now obviously becomes whether Penny Hardaway can keep this team mostly in tact heading into next season. Over the second half of the season, this team figured out its identity and really seemed to take the next step in terms of coming together as a group. Memphis won eleven of its final thirteen games, with the two losses coming by a combined five points to a Houston team that is now in the Final Four. There is absolutely reason to believe this team can accomplish something special next season if they decide they want to run it back.
“I don’t really try to force kids to stay,” Hardaway said. “If a kid feels like he wants to go somewhere else and play more minutes, I’ll support that. Now, if this group wants to stay together, we’ll be really dangerous. Very dangerous. We know the system; the guys know how I coach and they know what I’m expecting. They know what we have to buy into for us to be champions next year on the next level.”
To end a covid season with a championship must be a feeling a validation for both Hardaway and the players. Through all the various obstacles and protocols, they stuck together and proved what this team can be. Memphis basketball has as much promise going forward as it has in the past decade.
“Just to bring a championship back to this city and the fans; these are probably the best fans in the entire country,” Quinones said. “The city of Memphis is just such a basketball city. I feel like we owed it to the city.”
The last time Memphis won the NIT, it proceeded a magical run that included three Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four. Let’s just start next season tomorrow.