Michigan 82, Florida State 73
NEW YORK (AP) _ Only two schools will end the 1996-97 season as national champions. Michigan is one of them.
The Wolverines didn’t win THE tournament, but they won the only one they were invited to.
Robert Traylor had 26 points and 13 rebounds Thursday night as Michigan won its second NIT title with an 82-73 victory over Florida State.
Following an enigmatic regular season, the Wolverines (23-11) failed to receive an NCAA bid. But the NIT was glad to have the perennial Big Ten power in its field, and Michigan made the most of the opportunity to close its 1996-97 season on a positive note.
``Nothing is more sweet than the smell and taste of victory,″ Michigan coach Steve Fisher said. ``I feel great for everyone including myself, the way we came together in representing Michigan the way I think it should be represented.″
Maceo Baston scored 20 points and Louis Bullock 17 for Michigan (23-11), which outrebounded Florida State 47-28.
``If they were in the NCAAs, they would have made the Elite Eight at least,″ Florida State coach Pat Kennedy said. ``I don’t think I’ve coached against a team in all my 17 years that has been so physically imposing as they are.″
Following an 8-0 start this season, the Wolverines were ranked No. 9 in the national polls. But a five-game losing skid in a stretch of six losses in seven games cost Michigan a trip to the NCAAs.
Overrated was a common label used to assess the team, and reminders of the Fab Five’s failures to win any national or Big Ten titles gave Michigan a choker’s tag.
``A lot of people have said that this team can’t win anything,″ Fisher said. ``Now they can’t say that.″
The first-ever basketball game between schools better known for football accomplishments was fittingly dominated by the one player on the floor who looks like a defensive tackle.
Traylor, a 6-foot-8, 300-pound sophomore nicknamed ``Tractor,″ used his massive body to help Michigan control the boards and thwart a dramatic Florida State comeback in the second half.
Traylor, who had 33 points and 19 rebounds in Michigan’s two victories at Madison Square Garden, was named the tournament’s MVP.
``It’s a great honor when you look at the long list of names,″ Traylor said. ``But if I didn’t score a point or get a rebound, it wouldn’t matter, because we won.″
Florida State (20-12) was led by James Collins’ 20 points, and LaMarr Greer had 15. With former FSU point guards Charlie Ward and Sam Cassell among the 15,849 on hand, the Seminoles rallied from 18 down and closed to 68-66 with 4:46 to go.
``You can build a 20-point lead in a hurry,″ Fisher said, ``and you can lose it in a hurry. And we did.″
Traylor, who said after the game that he plans to come back for his junior year at Michigan, scored on a putback with 3:45 left, giving the Wolverines a four-point lead, and on Florida State’s next trip, he slapped the ball off guard Kerry Thompson’s knee and out of bounds.
Travis Conlan then hit Maurice Taylor with an alley-oop pass for a dunk and a 72-66 Michigan lead. Florida State misfired on its next trip and Bullock scored on a layup with 1:37 left, sending Michigan’s players and fans into a frenzy.
``He made some huge plays tonight, no question about that,″ Fisher said of Traylor. ``Robert is a winner with the heart of a champion.″
Leading by 18 in the second half, Michigan seemed to lose its spark, and and Florida State, playing in only its second basketball title game, took advantage.
Greer hit a 3-pointer and the Seminoles scored 12 points in a 1:37 stretch to close to 54-49. Following a Michigan turnover, Thompson capped the run with a dunk with 12:20 remaining.
Michigan’s lead fluctuated between eight and two points in the next eight minutes. Florida State missed a chance to tie it at 68-all when Collins missed two free throws with 4:32 to go.
``We made a nice run,″ Kennedy said. ``I was extremely proud of the way our kids fought back. It was a positive final run for all our kids. ... we were exhausted at the end.″
In the third-place game, Richard Hamilton’s two straight 3-pointers turned back an Arkansas rally in the second half as Connecticut defeated the Razorbacks 74-64.
Hamilton scored 19 points and Monquencio Hardnett 17 for UConn (18-14), which outrebounded Arkansas 43-26. Hamilton made five 3-pointers and UConn finished 11-of-16 from 3-point range.
Pat Bradley led the Razorbacks (18-14) with 18 points on six 3-pointers.