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Baylor Wins NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays in Razor-Thin Battle

They defeated Florida, 95-91, and Pittsburgh won the third-place match, beating Oregon State, 76-51.

The finals of the National Invitation Tournament Season Tip-Off between the No. 13 Baylor Bears and the Florida Gators returned to Barclays Center on Friday, November 24, as both teams most definitely came to play.

This game was a lot more evenly matched compared to the first round of games as No. 13 Baylor narrowly defeated Florida, 95-91, to become the 2023 NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament champions and will now look to be the next team to win the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament and NCAA championship in the same year since Villanova did it in 2016.

Even with starting sophomore center Micah Handlogten out with an injury sustained in the first round of the tournament, the Gators took it to the Bears to start off the game, going up 7-0 in the first two minutes.

Walter Clayton Jr. attacking the basket.
Florida's junior guard #1 Walter Clayton Jr. attacking the basket. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

No.13 Baylor took the initial punch in the mouth quite well and settled into their offense, taking what the defense gave them, knocking down clean looks and attacking the basket throughout the entirety of the game.

The Bears were led by senior forward Jalen Bridges and senior guard RayJ Dennis, who won Tournament MVP and Gatorade Player of the Game, as they scored 23 and 24 points respectively.

RayJ Dennis with a stepback jumper.
Tournament MVP RayJ Dennis shooting a jumper near the basket. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

Dennis in particular exploded in the second half when it mattered most, scoring 22 of his 24 total points in the half, draining threes and hitting big shot after big shot. He also came away with three steals and distributed the rock quite well, logging eight assists on the night and connected with Bridges, hitting him for open threes throughout the game.    

Sophomore guard Langston Love was an X-factor off the bench for No. 13 Baylor in this one, scoring 16 points and shooting 60% from three as well as knocking down five of his six free throws.

No. 13 Baylor's sophomore guard #13 Langston Love launching a three. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

No. 13 Baylor was constantly tested though as Florida did not go down without a fight. It was a back-and-forth contest with the winner being decided in the final few minutes when Baylor began to pull away.

Four out of the five starters for the Gators scored in double digits as sophomore guard Riley Kugel led the way with 25 points and nine rebounds, five of them offensive rebounds, and scored several clutch baskets that kept the game close when the Gators needed it. Grad-transfer forward Tyrese Samuel scored 18 points on 7-8 shooting from the field and grad-transfer guard Zion Pullin added 17 points of his own but it wasn’t enough to help Florida hoist the trophy this year.

Riley Kugel shoots a three.
Florida's sophomore guard #2 Riley Kugel shoots a three. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

The most important points of the game came from fifth-year senior forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who scored his only three points of the game with 9:56 to go in the second half to put the Bears up, 64-61. Bridges followed that up with another three on the very next possession and the Bears took that lead all the way to the end.

Kugel and co. did their best to take the lead back but every time they rallied with a score, No. 13 Baylor came back on the other end and answered with a bucket of their own or drew a foul for an easy two points.

Riley Kugel drives in the paint.
Florida's sophomore guard Riley Kugel leaping in the air for a tough layup. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

The Gators actually came down with 19 offensive boards and forced 14 turnovers, but they couldn’t convert enough of their second chance opportunities and coughed up the ball 12 times themselves.

In the end, it came down to who was more efficient from beyond the arc, and No. 13 Baylor could not miss from deep especially during crunch time, shooting 56% from three, whereas Florida shot only 30.8% from deep.

Baylor goes up for the alley oop slam.
No. 13 Baylor's sophomore forward #15 Josh Ojianwuna soaring in the air for an alley oop slam. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

The third-place match was much less compelling, with the Pittsburgh Panthers winning by a lopsided 76-51 against the Oregon State Beavers.

For the first eight minutes, it was a competitive game. The Beavers actually played decent defense, it just didn’t matter because the Panthers nabbed 17 offensive rebounds as the Beavers seemingly forgot how to box out, handing over second chance points left and right, negating the defensive front they put up.

Ishmael Leggett scores a layup off the inbounds steal.
Pittsburgh's junior guard #5 Ishmael Leggett scores a layup off the inbound steal. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

When they weren’t gifted second chance opportunities, the Panthers made good on their first looks, consistently hitting open shots throughout the game as they took a 12 point lead going into the second half and more than doubled it by the end.

Junior forward Zack Austin led the Panthers with 19 points and shot 3-6 from three-point range and was followed by senior forward Blake Hinson who scored 17 points and junior guard Ishmael Leggett who added 15 points and 7 rebounds.

Blake Hinson shoots a three.
Pittsburgh's senior forward #2 Blake Hinson shooting from beyond the arc. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

Oregon State was actually able to orchestrate clean offensive possessions that weren’t completely snuffed out by the defense every play this time around and their leading scorer going into the tourney, Jordan Pope, who had 11 on the night, looked a lot more comfortable and loose against the Panthers.

The Beavers went on a 6-0 run to end the first half, cutting the deficit down from a rough 16 to a manageable 12 after free throws from sophomore forward Tyler Bilodeau and leading scorer of the Beavers for the night, sophomore guard Dexter Akanno who had 12 points total. However, Oregon State couldn’t consistently knock down the open shots they created for themselves like Pittsburgh did the whole game and the little momentum they had going into the last 20 minutes was lost.

Federiko Federiko contests a shot.
Pittsburgh's junior center #33 Federiko Federiko contesting Oregon State's senior center #15 Chol Marial's shot in the low post. Photo: Shenal Tissera for BK Reader.

After the Beavers allowed their umpteenth offensive rebound that led to a Hinson three, extending the Panther’s lead to 22 with 11:11 to go in the game, there was no more fight left in them.

Pittsburgh cruised to victory and had the honor of not coming dead last in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament.

Shenal Tissera

About the Author: Shenal Tissera

Shenal Tissera is a Staten Island-born freelance writer.
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