NEW YORK — Dante Milligan made a touching and triumphant return to the arena he practically grew up in, and with a few encouraging words from his mother seated courtside, helped Massachusetts into the NIT championship.

The undersized post player had 17 points and 12 rebounds and made several blocks late, and the Minutemen defeated two-time defending NCAA champion Florida 78-66 on Tuesday night.

Gary Forbes scored 19 points, Chris Lowe and Ricky Harris added 16 each, and the starters scored all but two points for the Minutemen, who will play Ohio State on Thursday night.

It was Milligan who made things happen in the second half, though, rallying UMass from a nine-point deficit after hearing his mother Ruby shout something — he wouldn't say what — a couple minutes after the break.

Milligan and his brother, Alonzo, were involved with Boys Club of New York growing up, and their mentor worked in public relations at Madison Square Garden. Together they spent dozens of nights hanging out in the locker rooms and watching the New York Knicks.

Three years ago, Milligan's brother died in a random shooting in his old East Harlem neighborhood, and the Garden and Knicks established a scholarship fund in Alonzo's honor.

OHIO STATE 81, MISSISSIPPI 69: Ohio State's Jamar Butler and Evan Turner scored 17 each, and the Buckeyes used a buckling halfcourt trap and an early 14-0 run to beat Mississippi 81-69 on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals.

Ohio State (23-13) will play Massachusetts in the championship Thursday night, after the Minutemen knocked off Florida 78-66.