NEW YORK—The biggest shot for Valparaiso in the Big Apple on Tuesday night came courtesy of an unexpected backup from Croatia.David Skara sank the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 20 seconds left and the Crusaders held off BYU 72-70 to reach the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament against George Washington.Alec Peters had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Crusaders, who will play for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden against George Washington, a 65-46 winner over San Diego State in the second semifinal.
”We’re playing for an NIT championship, which in my mind is almost better than getting to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and losing,” Peters said. ”So we’re still playing deep into the basketball season. We have a chance of winning our last game, which not very many teams get to say.”
Skara came off the bench to score a season-high 15 points, none bigger than his jumper that gave the top-seeded Crusaders (30-6) a 71-68 advantage after they had squandered a 16-point cushion.
”I thought we were really resilient tonight, especially when BYU made some late runs,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. ”Pretty much the whole second half, they were making runs at us.”
Kyle Collinsworth paced the second-seeded Cougars (26-11) with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his final college game. Nick Emery scored 18 and Chase Fischer added 16.Fischer had his shot blocked, but scored on a putback with 7.4 seconds remaining to cut BYU’s deficit to one.Shane Hammink broke free behind the defense on the ensuing inbounds play, but fumbled the ball and was quickly fouled near the basket. He made one of two free throws with 4.7 seconds to go, then blocked Fischer’s long 3-point try at the buzzer to seal it.Keith Carter had 13 points for the Crusaders, who were playing in the NIT semifinals for the first time. Hammink, who assisted on Skara’s clutch 3, and Darien Walker each scored 10.After trailing by 16 early in the second half, BYU took its first lead at 64-63 when Collinsworth converted a three-point play with 4:26 remaining, revving up a loud contingent of Cougars fans.BYU went ahead again, 68-67, when Kyle Davis scored inside off a pass from Collinsworth with 1:18 left. Hammink hit one of two free throws a few seconds later to tie it. Collinsworth airballed a pull-up jumper, setting the stage for Skara, a sophomore forward who was averaging 6.4 points per game.Valparaiso opened a 15-point lead, its largest of the first half, with under a minute to go and went to the break up 44-30 after Hammink soared through the lane for a dunk.BYU also lost in the NIT semifinals three years ago. That game was against Baylor, coached by Scott Drew – the brother of Bryce Drew. Scott Drew also guided the Bears to a semifinal victory in 2009 over San Diego State.Valpo improved to 12-4 against teams from the West Coast Conference, including a 60-44 quarterfinal victory over Saint Mary’s. … Valparaiso, one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams, held the high-scoring Cougars 14 points below their season average. Coming in, the Crusaders were allowing 62.2 points per game. … The teams combined for 25 turnovers in a sluggish first half.The NIT championship game is Thursday night against George Washington.