South Carolina 78, Louisville 63
NEW YORK (AP)—South Carolina found its game right where it left it last year.
Renaldo Balkman scored 23 points and the Gamecocks earned a chance to defend their NIT championship with a 78-63 win over Louisville in the semifinals Tuesday night.
“It feels good,” said Brandon Wallace, who had a career-high 19 points. “This is what we planned to do when we came up here, just handling business.”
The Gamecocks, who beat Saint Joseph’s in the final last year, can become the second team to win consecutive NIT crowns with a win over Michigan on Thursday night. The Wolverines beat Old Dominion 66-43 in the other semifinal Tuesday night.
Tarence Kinsey added 21 points for the Gamecocks (22-15), who shot 60 percent from the field.
“We played the best basketball we’ve played in a long time,” Balkman said.
Trailing 42-32 at halftime, Louisville (21-13) got within 48-41 early in the second half as freshman Terrence Williams scored seven straight points, but South Carolina answered with a 10-1 run to take a 58-42 lead with 11:35 to play. Balkman and Wallace had acrobatic dunks during the spurt.
The Gamecocks didn’t seem bothered by Louisville’s pressure, turning the ball over only seven times.
“Three games going now we’ve turned it over a total of 22 times,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “As much as anything other than the wins themselves I’m very proud of that.”
Odom was impressed with the play of his point guard Tre’ Kelly, who had 10 assists.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen him play a better floor game than he played tonight,” Odom said.
Trailing by 16, Louisville scored the next eight points to close the gap to 58-50, but Balkman scored six straight to put the game away.
“South Carolina is a terrific team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They are playing great basketball right now.”
Taquan Dean scored 21 points for Louisville and finished 12th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,649 points.
“Taquan had a great four years for us,” Pitino said of his senior guard. “He epitomized everything you try and teach. Plays hard all the time.”
Williams added 16 for the Cardinals, who fell to 0-3 at Madison Square Garden this season. The Cardinals lost to St. John’s in the regular season and Pittsburgh in the opening round of the Big East tournament.
The Gamecocks, who advanced to the semifinals with a 65-62 victory at Cincinnati, closed out the first half with a 14-4 run. With the game tied at 28, Balkman, who went 11-for-14 from the field, started the run with a two-handed dunk and capped it with a three-point play with 2.1 seconds left. He finished the first half with 11 points.
“Balkman is tremendous,” Pitino said. “His effort level is so high and he’s so long that he really bothered us.”
St. John’s is the only school to successfully defend its NIT title, winning in 1943 and 1944.
This year’s tournament was the first under the control of the NCAA, which purchased the rights to the preseason and postseason NITs in August as part of a settlement that ended a four-year legal fight between the two parties.