By Dave Skretta/The Associated Press
NEW YORK – Graham Hatch walked alone through a tunnel inside Madison Square Garden, one of the last players to head for the bus. He had a backpack from the Maui Invitational slung over his shoulder and the MVP trophy from the NIT tucked under his arm.
Nobody could blame him for wanting the moment to last forever.
Hatch was recruited to Wichita State by former coach Mark Turgeon, then went on a two-year Mormon mission. He didn’t even meet current coach Gregg Marshall until his first day of school, then played so poorly once he got on the court that he thought often about quitting.
“He came into my office after his freshman year, for the end-of-the-year meeting, and he said, ‘Coach, I feel inadequate.’ And I had never had a player say that to me,” Marshall said.
He sure isn’t inadequate anymore.
After working tirelessly on his shot, his conditioning, his overall game for four long years, everything came together Thursday night. Hatch was perfect from beyond the arc, scoring 12 points and leading the Shockers to a 66-57 victory over Alabama in the NIT title game.
“You’re talking about a testimony to hard work,” Marshall said. “I’m telling you, in 26 years of coaching, I’ve seen a lot of players, and I can’t tell you one that’s worked harder than Graham Hatch, cutting up his body, becoming quicker.
“He’s thinking about not going to dental school and following in his dad’s footsteps, but he’s thinking about becoming a Navy SEAL,” Marshall said. “He’s an incredible success story.”
So are the Shockers, who rebounded from a disappointing loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and getting snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee by going on a tear through the NIT, beating several other teams that barely missed out on the bubble.
Wichita State beat Nebraska by 27 points, won at Virginia Tech, beat College of Charleston, then set a school record for wins with a 75-44 romp over Washington State in the semifinals.
It added one more victory against the Crimson Tide.
“I’m so proud of our team and the way we have come back from those disappointments,” Hatch said. “We have pulled together and just, you know, it’s magical. It’s just unbelievable.”
J.T. Durley added 12 points for the Shockers (29-8), who led UConn at the Maui Invitational, lost to VCU on a last-second free throw, and played San Diego State — a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament — to the final buzzer earlier in the season.
“Give them credit. They made the plays they needed to make,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who plans to return home and likely watch his former team, VCU, play in the Final Four this weekend. The Rams face Butler on Saturday.
“I’m really proud of what our guys were able to accomplish over the course of the season,” Grant said. “We grew, and we learned over the course of the year, and I think as a basketball team we got better, and really as a coach, that’s what you want to be able to do.”
Tony Mitchell had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Alabama (25-12), though he didn’t get much help. Leading scorer JaMychal Green struggled with foul trouble and finished with 12 points, and Trevor Releford and Charvez Davis had 10 points each.
“We had a lot of mental breakdowns, and offensively, we had a hard time even going out,” Davis said. “But we have to give them credit. They made some wide-open shots and made great shots, and they were just the better team today.”
Alabama briefly pulled ahead in the second half on a free throw by Chris Hines with 15:06 left, but Wichita State answered with eight straight points. Green went to the bench with his fourth foul during the run, and the lead never fell below five the rest of the way.
Any doubt about the outcome was erased when Hatch hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4:13 remaining that made it 61-52. On the Shockers’ next possession, Hatch set up from the same spot and knocked down another 3-pointer.
“My shot felt so good today,” he said, smiling. “I was never so confident shooting the ball than I was tonight. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Both teams certainly wish they’d made the NCAA tournament, but they took advantage of the chance to keep playing through March. They both brought pep bands and cheerleaders, along with a couple thousand fans, to one of the most expensive cities to visit in the country.
They were loud, too, with dueling chants of “Go Shockers” and “Roll Tide.”
The two teams sure played as if they belonged in the other, more prestigious postseason tournament in the first half. They combined to shoot 50 percent from the field, made all 14 of their combined foul shots and played well enough on defense to force 18 turnovers.
Wichita State managed a 37-34 lead largely because it got the pace going in its favor. The Crimson Tide came in allowing just over 59 points per game, eighth-best in the nation, while the Shockers are 15-0 the past three-plus seasons under Marshall when they score 80 points.
They didn’t get there this time. It turned out they didn’t need to.
“I knew we were a good basketball team. Two of the teams in the Final Four, we could have easily won those games,” Marshall said of Connecticut and VCU. “They deserved to win the games, they deserve to be in the Final Four. They are great teams and we could have easily beaten either one of them with one different whistle, one different play.
“So when you think about that,” he said, “I know we’re a pretty good basketball team.”