March 30, 2000
* Coach Doherty
* J. Dillon
* T. Murphy
* D. Graves
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK– Wake Forest players hugged at center court, their midseason struggles a distant memory as they celebrated the NIT championship.
Robert O’Kelley, the tournament MVP, made five 3-pointers and finished with 19 points to lead Wake Forest to a 71-61 victory over Notre Dame in the final of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
“It feels great,” O’Kelley said. “It feels really special for me – to come out here and play well and help my team win the championship.”
Craig Dawson added 13 points and Darius Songaila 12 for the Demon Deacons (22-14), who won their first NIT final in the first game between the schools.
“I am absolutely beside myself with the effort given by this basketball team against a team that gave equal effort,” Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said. “They matched us toughness for toughness, hustle for hustle, sweat for sweat. The difference was that our kids made big plays early and just refused to lose the lead.”
Notre Dame’s Troy Murphy finished with 20 points on 8-for-16 shooting, but was mostly held in check, getting most of his points late.
It has been speculated that Murphy, a sophomore, will make himself eligible for the NBA draft. He said he hoped to make his decision within the next few weeks.
“I’ll talk to coach (Matt) Doherty and my parents and see what they have to say, and we’ll decide what’s best for me to do,” Murphy said. “It was a long season, but a great season. But I wouldn’t trade this season for any other.”
Wake Forest, which lost nine of 13 games midway through the season and saw its postseason hopes quickly fading, ended the season by winning eight of its last nine games.
None was bigger than this one.
“I am so happy for our players,” Odom said. “It’s nice to be able to end the season with a championship win.”
Wake Forest played throughout with energy and determination, looking much better than it did in its semifinal victory over North Carolina State on Tuesday night when it had 23 turnovers.
The Demon Deacons beat Vanderbilt, New Mexico, defending NIT champion California and North Carolina State to reach the final for the first time.
After erasing Notre Dame’s early five-point lead, the Demon Deacons nursed big leads throughout, then stopped the Irish’s final comeback attempt.
“Whatever was needed, our kids were able to get it done,” Odom said.
Trailing 61-45 with just over five minutes remaining, Notre Dame (22-15) went on an 11-2 run, getting within 63-56 on Murphy’s layup with 52 seconds remaining.
Songaila made a free throw with 50.4 seconds left to make it 64-56 and O’Kelley pushed the margin to 10 with two free throws with 34.9 seconds left.
David Graves, who had 17 points, made a 3-pointer with 27.6 seconds left and then made two free throws with 27.3 seconds left to make it 66-61. Jere Macura fouled Songaila with 26.2 seconds left, and Songaila made one of two free throws to give Wake Forest a 67-61 lead.
Jimmy Dillon fouled O’Kelley with 13.8 left, and he made both free throws. Songaila’s two free throws with 3.4 seconds left sealed it.
“I was proud of our guys for making a run,” Doherty said. “All year long, when we’ve been in a hole our guys have responded. It was fun, and it would have been fun to pull this one off, but they knocked down their foul shots.”
Wake Forest started the second half with a 15-6 run, stretching its lead to 53-33 on O’Kelley’s 3-pointer with 12:36 remaining.
The Irish, who dominated Michigan, Xavier, Brigham Young and Penn State to get to the final, were thoroughly outplayed by the Demon Deacons.
For the first time in its run through the NIT, Notre Dame was unable to make its shots, going just 8-for-21 in the first half, and their star player was held in check. Further magnifying Notre Dame’s frustration, Doherty argued a no-call and was given a a technical with 1:59 remaining.
Murphy had just three points until his reverse layup at 6:29 made it 26-18. Harold Swanagan’s free throw at 6:00 got the Irish within 26-19.
Wake Forest went on an 11-1 run to lead 37-20, capped by O’Kelley’s 3-pointer at 1:49.
Notre Dame regained some confidence by scoring the last eight points of the half, including a pretty spin move by Murphy at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 37-28.
“I think coach got us going (with the technical),” Murphy said. “He got us on the run when we weren’t playing with a lot of emotion. He got us really fired up and back into the game.”
Penn State (19-16) beat North Carolina State (20-14) 74-72 in the consolation game that preceded the final.