Originally published on March 31, 2006
USC ended a season of hard bumps by setting things to cruise control.
The Gamecocks, whose lack of depth and rocky regular-season performance appeared to ruin a promising year, never flinched Thursday when they swatted Michigan 76-64 for their second consecutive National Invitation Tournament championship. USC became the first team to win back-to-back NIT titles since St. John's did it in 1943 and '44.
"No. 1 was great. But No. 2 is the best, baby," said Renaldo Balkman, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player. "Come back for another one. We love this thing."
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Reaching the NIT hardly was the Gamecocks' preseason goal. Several players said during the preseason that an NCAA Tournament bid was a foregone conclusion. But that was months before USC stumbled to a 6-10 record in SEC play and lost four of its final five regular-season games.
The Gamecocks, however, were just getting started. They upset Tennessee and Kentucky on the way to an appearance in the SEC tournament final then won two NIT games on the road to reach the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
USC, which won five games in January and February, was 9-1 in March.
The Gamecocks proved Thursday they not only had forgotten the past, but it might have been their top source of motivation.
"This team went through so much," Tarence Kinsey said. "That's the biggest thing about this."
USC's undisputed leaders, Kinsey and Tre' Kelley, scored 21 and 20 points, respectively. Balkman, whose high-energy style earned him as many cheers as boos during the NIT, had 10 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high six blocks.
All five starters played at least 32 minutes. USC's bench options the past four games, since senior forward Antoine Tisby was suspended for violating team policy, were whittled to three scholarship players.
The Gamecocks looked like a team that had it all figured out Thursday. They made 53.3 percent of their shots in the first half and continued a run of careful ball handling and tough defense. USC, which entered Thursday having averaged six turnovers in its past three NIT games, committed 13 miscues against the Wolverines.
Michigan never seemed to shake its title-game jitters. Guard Daniel Horton, who had streaks of at least 40 consecutive free throws this season, made 1 of 4. Wolverines coach Tommy Amaker said Horton's bad luck was a signal Michigan might never catch up with the surging Gamecocks.
"You need things to go your way when you're down like that," Amaker said.
USC's victory lacked the drama of last year's championship, when Kinsey hit a 3-pointer as time expired to defeat St. Joseph's. The Gamecocks needed 6:37 to build a double-digit lead against the Wolverines, who trailed by as many as 17 in the second half.
USC coach Dave Odom acknowledged that his team, which finished the regular season tied for fifth in the six-team SEC East, waited until the postseason the past two seasons to play its best.
"Madison Square Garden has been good to the Gamecocks," said Dave Odom, whose third NIT championship came on the same night he won his 100th game at USC. "But we've also been good to it."
So good the Gamecocks have made it an almost- yearly tradition. The team has reached the NIT semifinal round in three of Odom's five seasons.
A third consecutive NIT championship, however, will not be atop USC's priority list next season, Kinsey said. But for a team as unpredictable as the Gamecocks, the senior shooting guard said anything is possible.
"I don't want to see them three-peat," Kinsey said. "I'd rather see them in the NCAA (Tournament).
"But if they get here again, might as well."