TCU rallies past Central Florida, 68-53, to earn berth in NIT title game

TCU’s turnaround men’s basketball season moved one step closer to an NIT championship Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden.

The Horned Frogs knocked off Central Florida, 68-53, to secure a berth in Thursday’s championship game against Georgia Tech. TCU rallied from a double-digit, first-half deficit behind a 26-5 surge during the middle stages of the contest, with much of the heavy lifting coming from forward Vladimir Brodziansky (18 points, 9 rebounds) and guard Kenrich Williams (14 points, 14 rebounds), who contributed his 18th double-double of the season.

Brodziansky won the inside duel with UCF’s 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall, the tallest player in major college basketball. Fall fouled out after contributing seven points, six blocks and five rebounds.

But the biggest jolt in TCU’s rally came from Williams, a junior who contributed 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists during the Horned Frogs rally from a 31-29 halftime deficit.

“I thought Kenrich was terrific. In the second half, he just kind of took over in all sorts of different ways,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “Passing, finishing, offensive rebounding. That was pretty big. We just let him go and do his thing.”

TCU (23-15) benefited by picking up its sixth victory in its last seven games and fourth in a row during the NIT. Williams, who missed the first two games of the season while regaining full strength from last year’s knee surgery, has collected his 18 double-doubles in the team’s last 36 games: a 50 percent conversion rate for the season.

Williams credited some words of inspiration as he left the court at halftime for jump-starting his dominant second half.

“Going into halftime, one of the assistants just told me I needed to pick my play up,” Williams said. “I did a little bit more hustling the second half and I’m thankful the ball kept finding my hands.”

TCU moves to Thursday’s championship game against Georgia Tech, a 76-61 winner over Cal State Bakersfield in Tuesday’s early game. The contest (7 p.m., ESPN) will give the Frogs an opportunity to secure the first postseason tournament championship in school history to cap Dixon’s first season coaching at his alma mater.

Dixon said TCU focused on improving its offensive penetration in the second half, which provided the impetus for the team’s turnaround.

“We emphasized more driving, penetrating and making decisions,” Dixon said. “I thought the key to getting after it on offense was making a little bit better decisions in the lane … Plus, we just don’t want the season to end. That might be the biggest motivation of all. The celebration in the locker room, you could just sense the joy.”

There was plenty to go around. After some early struggles, TCU opened the second half with a 7-0 run in the first 1:33 to take a 36-31 lead and flip the momentum. The Frogs, who led only once in the first half (by a 2-0 margin), got a JD Miller layup, a Williams dunk and a Williams’ 3-pointer to force a UCF timeout.

After a 3-pointer by UCF’s B.J. Taylor, TCU responded with another 9-0 run that included a three-point play by Miller, a Miller layup, a Desmond Bane 3-pointer and a free throw by Brodziansky. The Frogs, who trailed 29-19 with 5:05 remaining in the first half, suddenly held a 45-34 lead after their game-turning, 26-5 surge. They closed it out from there, finishing with 20 assists on 26 made field goals.

Asked about his ability to outshine Fall by a wide margin in regard to points and rebounds, Brodziansky said: “It was a challenge to play against the tallest basketball player in the NCAA right now. You cannot really get ready for that.”

But Brodziansky thrived on a night when TCU won the rebounding battle, 44-35.

During a first half filled with runs by both teams, UCF raced to 10-4 lead within the first five minutes by making 5-of-6 shots from the field to start the game. Knights guard Matt Williams made 5-of-10 in the first half, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc, to help UCF build a double-digit advantage, 29-19, with 5:05 left until intermission.

But TCU roared back with a 10-0 run, tying the contest on Brandon Parrish’s 3-pointer with 1:48 to play. A Matt Williams jumper with 49 seconds remaining sent the Knights into the locker room with a 31-29 lead before TCU continued its rally in the second half to help Dixon improve his personal record in Madison Square Garden to 27-15.

“I think they sensed how important this was and how much it meant to me, and I appreciate that,” said Dixon, a former TCU player who can give his alma mater its first postseason tournament title in program history with his 28th career win in MSG on Thursday night. “This is just a great win for us.”

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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