A 16-point second-half lead became a deficit late in the second half, but the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team never panicked, regrouping in a battle down the stretch with BYU Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden and getting the game’s biggest shot courtesy of sophomore David Skara (Zadar, Croatia/Ekonomska Skola Zadar) – a 3-pointer with 17.7 seconds to play that gave the Crusaders the lead for good in a 72-70 victory in the semifinals of the NIT. With the win, Valpo advances to face George Washington in the NIT championship game Thursday night at 6 p.m. CT.
The win was the Crusaders’ 30th of the season, extending their own program record for wins in a single season. After winning each of their first three NIT games by double figures, the ending Tuesday night harkened back to the end of the regular season, where three of Valpo’s last four victories came by two points or in overtime.
Junior Shane Hammink (Millingen aan de Rijn, Netherlands/Oakley College [LSU]) split a pair of free throws with just over a minute to play to tie the game at 68-all. On the ensuing defensive possession, BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth came up well short with a mid-range jumper and Hammink secured the rebound with 48 seconds remaining.
Following a timeout, the Crusaders passed up a potential 2-for-1 opportunity, not finding a good shot, and instead focused on moving the ball around the perimeter. The ball swung from the right corner to the top of the key, from Hammink to Skara, who calmly drained his third triple of the game with 17.7 seconds to play and make it 71-68 Valpo.
On the other end, senior Vashil Fernandez (Kingston, Jamaica/Princeton Day [Md.] Academy) blocked Chase Fischer’s first effort at the basket, but Fischer converted a second chance which cut the lead to one point. .But out of BYU’s final timeout, Valpo set up its vintage full-court inbounds play, as Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) threw the home run pass to Hammink over the top of the defense.
Hammink didn’t come up clean with the pass, but maintained control and dribbled the clock down to 4.7 seconds before being fouled. After rimming in the first free throw, Hammink missed the second, but got back on defense and sealed the game by rejecting Fischer’s last-second gasp from 35 feet.
It was all Valpo in the first half, as the Crusaders never trailed and led by as many as 15 points. Valpo shot 51.7% from the floor and was 7-of-12 from deep, with Peters and senior Darien Walker (Chicago, Ill./Simeon [John A. Logan/Arizona Western]) leading the way with 10 points apiece. A drive and slam in the final minute by Hammink capped the opening half for the Crusaders and sent them into the locker room leading 44-30.
Peters would convert a driving layup to extend the lead to 16 points to start the second half, but BYU’s 1-3-1 zone would give the offense fits for much of the period. The Crusaders scored just eight points over the next 11 minutes following Peters’ opening basket, as BYU went on a 21-8 spurt to cut the lead to three points at 54-51.
Triples from Peters, senior Keith Carter (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East [Saint Louis]) and Hammink in a five-possession stretch helped push Valpo’s lead back out to six points at 63-57 with 6:04 remaining, but the Cougars answered with seven straight points over the next two minutes to take their first lead at 64-63 with 4:26 to go. Another drive and slam from Hammink stopped the BYU run, and a layup from Skara with 2:35 to play gave Valpo a 67-64 lead before BYU would score the next two baskets to set up the closing stages.
Five different Crusaders scored in double figures, led by 15 points apiece from Peters and Skara –a new season high for the Croatian. Carter finished with 13 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Hammink closed with 10 points, five assists, three steals and five blocked shots – as many blocks as he had all season entering the game.
Collinsworth led BYU (26-11) with 20 points, while Nick Emery scored 18 and Fischer finished with 16 points. Valpo limited the Cougars, one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses, to just 70 points on 38.2% shooting from the floor and 7-of-21 from 3-point range.
Valparaiso (30-6) looks for its first-ever postseason tournament title on Thursday evening against George Washington at 6 p.m. CT. The game can be seen live on ESPN and heard live, as always on WVUR (95.1 FM, Valparaiso) and also nationally on Westwood One Radio. Links for the live video, audio and stats will be available via ValpoAthletics.com.