It was a record setting night in Valparaiso, IN. In front of a record crowd of 5,444, the Valparaiso Crusaders won their program record 29th game of the season by a final score of 60-44 over the Saint Mary's Gaels. The win sends Valparaiso to the NIT semifinals and represents the Crusaders third postseason win of the year, also a program high.
The battle between the top-seeded Crusaders and the second-seeded Gaels was set to be a clash of mid-major titans. Both teams had excellent seasons and legitimate cases to be included in the NCAA tournament field of 68. The two teams seemed evenly matched with one, Saint Mary's, sporting a high efficiency offense and the other, Valparaiso, falling back on a stifling defense.
The first half of the game lived up to the expectations of a closely fought showdown. The Gaels began the game undeterred by the capacity crowd and the Crusaders normally solid defense. Guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon were able to drive into the lane and draw the attention of Valparaiso big man Vashil Fernandez. This allowed teammates like Dane Pineau to benefit with open looks next to the basket. The Gaels shot 48.1% from the field in the half and also knocked down four three-pointers.
However, the Crusaders managed to hang around with some hot shooting of their own. Alec Peters led the offensive charge for Valparaiso, tallying 11 points in the first half. But, without the backing of the defense that had gotten them to this point, the Crusaders found themselves trailing the Gaels at the half 31-29.
Things would turn around quickly for the Crusaders in the second half. Valparaiso's defense adjusted to the Gaels' attack of the lane and completely shut down the Saint Mary's offense. Saint Mary's did not score until the 13:37 mark in the second half, a scoreless streak of more than nine minutes spanning back to the end of the first half. That scoring drought would prove to effectively end the Gaels' season as a Darien Walker three to open the second half would give the Crusaders the lead for good.
Valparaiso stretched the lead to nine before Saint Mary's could end its drought. The Crusaders never looked back and locked down on defense. Valparaiso held the Gaels to just 20.7% shooting in the second half including just 1-11 from three. Fernandez also recorded five blocks in the half, contributing to the Gaels only being able to muster 13 points in the game's second frame. On the other hand, Valparaiso shot 50% in the second half and pushed the lead late in the game to 16, where it would end.
Peters again led the Crusaders in scoring as he has throughout the NIT. He finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Fernandez made his presence felt in this game more than he had in the Crusaders first two NIT contests, finishing with 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 blocks.
The second half scoring drought kept the Gaels' numbers relatively low as they set a season low for points scored in a game. Pineau led the Gaels in scoring with 11 points. Naar made an impact for Saint Mary's as well, scoring 8 points and recording 5 assists.
The win sends the Crusaders to the NIT semifinals in New York where they await BYU. Valparaiso will be looking for their 30th win of the season in that upcoming contest on Tuesday, March 29th.
The loss ends the Gaels' season. Saint Mary's also set a program record for wins this season as they end with a record of 29-6.