Penny wise: Memphis wins NIT title, has bigger goals for '22

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Memphis players and staff celebrate their win against Mississippi State in an NCAA college basketball championship game in the NIT, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

FRISCO, Texas – Memphis has its first title with Penny Hardaway as coach, and these young Tigers could be set up for more.

Boogie Ellis scored 23 points and Memphis never trailed after a fast start to beat Mississippi State 77-64 in the NIT championship game Sunday, wrapping up Hardaway’s third season coaching his alma mater after the Tigers just missed out on their first NCAA Tournament since 2013-14.

“We want to win championships, and the NIT is just a start,” Hardaway said.

With no seniors on the roster, the Tigers won 11 of their last 13 games. The only setbacks in that span were a pair of one-possession losses six days apart against NCAA Elite Eight team Houston.

"If this group wants to stay together, we’ll be really dangerous. We’ll be very dangerous because now we know the system,” Hardaway said. “The guys for the first time this year, they know how I coach, they know what I’m expecting, they know what the culture is, and they know what we have to buy into for us to be champions next year at the next level.”

Landers Nolley II opened the second half with a jumper and a 3-pointer that put the Tigers (20-8) ahead to stay to stay while winning college basketball's oldest tournament for the second time — they also were NIT champs in 2002. Nolley was one of three sophomore starters for the Tigers, who also had a freshman and junior among the starting five.

“We had a goal of cutting the nets down in the NCAA Tournament, but I do feel like we should’ve been there," sophomore guard Lester Quinones said. “But I feel like this was kind of a message to just show them that we kind of deserved to be there."

Their 2002 NIT title was the spark for a strong NCAA tourney run for the Tigers under John Calipari. Memphis made six of the next seven NCAAs, losing in overtime to Kansas in the 2008 championship game.