After the two teams battled to an early 12-12 tie, Monarch big man Alex Loughton capped off a 9-2 run with a three-pointer to put his club up 21-14 at the 12:16 mark. That seemed to serve as a bit of bit of a wake-up call for the Maize and Blue because they turned of the defensive pressure and began to pound the ball in the paint, both with rousing success.
Oft-maligned Courtney Sims paced a 19-3 run to close the half with eight points (including six straight at one point) to send the Wolverines into the break up 33-24. Michigan's staunch defense prevented the Monarchs from scoring a single field goal in the final twelve minutes.
After the intermission ODU appeared to get back on track, reeling off three consecutive three-pointers. Blaine Taylor's squad outscored the Wolverines 9-2 to open the half to trim the deficit to just two points, but Sims was right there again with a response. The Massachusetts native scored six points, (two of which came on a jumper just inside the arc), on an 11-3 run that pushed Michigan's lead to double figures, (46-36), with 12:33 to go.
Later Sims' spirited play drew praise from his teammates. "Courtney Sims was phenomenal tonight," Graham Brown said. "Sometimes he doesn't have the best games or he doesn't play the best out there. But tonight he was the difference-maker for us. He was the one that stretched our lead. He was a power down low and he did everything for us. He was getting rebounds and put-backs, he was strong down low and he even came out and shot the 18-footer for us tonight. He hasn't shown much of that this season, but he's a great player for us."
Old Dominion continued to battle despite injuries to their frontcourt tandem of Alex Loughton (who scored only four points while paying on a sprained ankle) and Arnaud Dahi (who left the game in the first half with a leg injury). The wind finally seemed to be taken out of their sails for good when Jerret Smith and Brent Petway teamed up for the play of the game.
Midway through the stanza Smith was standing three-feet behind the three-point line when he lobbed a picture perfect pass to Brent Petway who was coming backdoor. An unsuspecting Old Dominion player leaped in an attempt to block the shot, but Petway through it down anyway…drawing a foul in the process. That sparked 20-5 outburst for the Wolverines to close the game, giving them the 66-43 win. The defense was again suffocating during the run, holding ODU without a field goal for almost ten minutes. After the game, Amaker pointed to their play on that end of the floor along with the effort of Courtney Sims as the keys to victory.
"I thought (the defense) was the key for us," Amaker said. "I was really impressed with the way we turned it up a notch, and really cranked it up a level. We certainly needed to do that. I thought they came out in the second half strong, especially with those three three-pointers in a row. We put the screws a little tighter after that. We had much more focus after that on the defensive end. Our defense was so much needed at that point in the game. I was really pleased and proud of our seniors for leading the way. Courtney on the backboards, his tip dunks and just being a big presence in the post for us was tremendous. We saw a lot of things from him we have in the past, sometimes we don't always get that, but we certainly saw it from him tonight."
On the game Sims led the Wolverines with 18 points and seven rebounds. The Monarchs were led by Brian Henderson with 11 points and two rebounds respectively. For more on the contest, click the following links: Boxscore, Notes, Quotes, Photos.
With the victory the Wolverines advance to their second NIT championship game
in three years. They will square off with last year's champ, South Carolina.
The Gamecocks advanced to their second consecutive title game with a 78-63 victory
over Louisville. Tip-off is scheduled for Thursday at 7pm at Madison Square
Garden. The game will be carried live by ESPN.