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March 29, 2006

Michigan, South Carolina back in NIT championship

NEW YORK - Michigan and South Carolina have a plenty of experience with the NIT championship game.

The Wolverines won the title in 2004 with most of the same players who have led this year's run to Madison Square Garden. The Gamecocks won it all last season and four of their starters are back to try to do it again.

Michigan will try and prevent South Carolina from becoming the first team to win consecutive NIT championships in 60 years when they meet on Thursday night.

''We realize that our challenge is going to be a very difficult one with a good South Carolina team,'' Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.

With a lineup dominated by seniors who were sophomores on the '04 NIT title team, Amaker is happy that his players will get another chance at winning a championship.

''We start five seniors and that is something that we are very proud of going into this NIT tournament,'' Amaker said. ''Anytime you get an opportunity to play for a championship, where something is on the line and you have a chance to raise a banner, you have to feel good about it.''

Courtney Sims scored 18 points to help Michigan beat Old Dominion 66-43 in the semifinals on Tuesday night.

Daniel Horton was the MVP of the 2004 tournament.

''It's a different feeling because we had to overcome a lot of things,'' said Horton.

Amaker agrees with his senior point guard.

''Two years ago we were fortunate enough to come out with the title,'' he said. ''We were fairly young with a youthful exuberance and excitement about our program. I think this year the kids have been mature.''

The Wolverines had lost seven of their last nine games before the start of the NIT. However, a lot of those losses came with players hurt. Lester Abram missed 12 games with an ankle injury, Chris Hunter three with a partially torn MCL and Dion Harris two with an ankle sprain.

Sims was slowed at the start of the NIT with the flu.

''We're back to the three H's (healthy, happy and hungry) that coach talked about,'' Horton said. ''When we got those three we're a better team.''

Michigan (22-10) will need to be at its best to deny South Carolina history.

The Gamecocks earned the chance to try to match St. John's as the only school to successfully defend its NIT title with a 78-63 win over Louisville in the semifinals. St. John's won consecutive titles in 1943 and 1944.

''We are delighted to be playing in the finals for the second consecutive year,'' Odom said. ''That is a big thing for our team, school and our state. Madison Square Garden is a great place to be playing and a great place for college basketball.''

Renaldo Balkman scored 23 points, Tarence Kinsey had 21 points and Brandon Wallace added a career-high 19 for the Gamecocks (22-15) in Tuesday's win.

Odom is well versed in Amaker and Michigan.

''We are playing an excellent basketball team coached by Tommy Amaker who I have a great deal of respect for,'' Odom said.

Odom actually was in the recruiting battle for Amaker when he was in high school. Odom lost out to Duke for the star guard.

''Tommy and I go back to my days at Virginia when I was an assistant there,'' Odom recalled. ''I remember making the drive from Charlottesville to Fairfax. I had been working on Tommy pretty hard. I knew it was between us and Duke.''

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