NEW YORK -- This game should have been billed as The Bubble Game, a National Invitation Tournament semifinal between two teams that were on the bubble in the race for an NCAA bid and were bitterly disappointed when the invitation didn't come.
They were on the outside looking in. They thought -- no, knew -- they were among the country's top 64 teams. But none of it mattered. They were out and that was that.
So it was not surprising that the first words from coach Clem Haskins after Minnesota of the Big Ten beat Providence of the Big East, 76-70, at Madison Square Garden last night were: "Providence was like us, on a mission. We both felt we deserved an NCAA bid and didn't get it."
The Gophers used the fire stoked by the NCAA snub to come back from an 11-point deficit and advance to tomorrow night's championship showdown with another Big East team, Georgetown.
John Thompson's Hoyas used 40 minutes of relentless, full-court pressure defense and rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Alabama-Birmingham, 45-41.
Actually, the Providence-Minnesota battle was worthy of a championship game. The score was tied seven times in the first half, the last at 35-all.
The Friars (20-12) seemed to be taking control when they opened a 53-42 lead with 13:31 to play, but Voshon Lenard refused to let Minnesota fold.
Lenard, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who was a high school teammate of Michigan's Jalen Rose, had a game-high 25 points, including three field goals in a 9-0 burst that cut the Providence lead to 53-51.
"Lenard took the game over when we had a chance to do something," Providence coach Rick Barnes said. "He was the big difference."
After cutting the lead to one point twice, Minnesota (21-10) finally drew even at 65 on a pair of Lenard foul shots with 5:11 remaining.
The score was tied for the ninth time at 67 before Jayson Walton sank one of two free throws to put the Gophers ahead to stay with 2:32 on the clock.
Providence, which did not score a field goal in the final 8:28, fell behind 76-67 before Robert Phelps' three-pointer broke the field-goal drought with 2.7 seconds remaining.
By then, Minnesota had a spot in the championship game tucked away and the Friars' season was over.
For a while there, in the opening game of the doubleheader, it looked as if an offense would defeat a defense. The problem was the offense and defense belonged to the same team: Georgetown (20-12).
But on a night when the Hoyas' offense took a step backward toward the Peach Basket Era of basketball, their defense kept Alabama-Birmingham in check long enough for the Hoyas to rally.
"Defense is the key to any game," Georgetown guard Joey Brown said. "Eventually, the offense will come."
If there were signs of offensive life last night, they were few, far between and well-hidden.
Take UAB. The Blazers had averaged 71 points per game while forging a 20-13 record. But last night they were held scoreless in the final 9:25 and managed only two points in the final 13:50, which allowed Georgetown to come back from a 39-24 deficit and earn its 20th win.
When John Thompson was informed of the extent of UAB's drought, he smiled and said: "They didn't score for nine minutes? Wasn't that great."
Not that Georgetown was giving a shooting clinic in the first half.
Georgetown's offensive production was so feeble that after eight minutes -- or the equivalent of one quarter of a high school game -- the Hoyas had scored four points. After 16 minutes (the equivalent of a high school half), they had scored 10 points.
"I looked up at the scoreboard and couldn't believe it," Brown said.
However, UAB didn't use the Hoyas' extended ineptness to put the game out of reach. The Blazers went 8-for-23 from the floor in the first half to build a 24-14 lead. When they raced to a 31-14 lead early in the second half, a blowout seemed at hand.
"I think we might have tried to milk the clock too early," UAB coach Gene Bartow said. "We couldn't sustain what we had."
The Hoyas' freshman prodigy, Othella Harrington, who shared scoring honors with UAB's Stanley Jackson -- both with 11 points -- scored his first field goal with 14:30 remaining. That seemed to awaken the Hoyas.
In the next 9:08, they outscored UAB 17-5 and drew even at 41 on Eric Micoud's free throws. Micoud sank two more foul shots with 3:00 left to put the Hoyas ahead to stay at 43-41, and Harrington's two free throws with 22 seconds on the clock sealed the victory.