What looked to be an evenly matched game on paper turned into a dominating George Washington win in the NIT final. The Colonials paired an efficient offense with solid defense, aided by a cold Valparaiso shooting performance, to capture the school's first NIT championship title by a final of 76-60.
George Washington quickly opened up a lead in the first half. Led by seven early points from Kevin Larsen, the Colonials jumped out to a nine-point lead with 9:32 remaining in the half. The Crusaders struggled finding a rhythm offensively and missed many good looks at the basket, which George Washington took advantage of. If not for Alec Peters scoring 10 of the team's first 12 points, the Crusaders very well could have been dealt a blow from which they couldn't recover in the game's opening minutes.
However, Valparaiso was able to stay within range of the Colonials in the first half and used a late run to draw closer. Down eight with 6:21 to go, Keith Carter knocked down an NBA-range three to spark the run. Less than a minute later, two more points from Carter and a three from Peters had knotted the game at 24. However, the game took a devastating turn for the Crusaders during the run, as Carter suffered a toe injury fighting for a rebound. While Carter initially stayed on the floor to finish off the run, the pain became too much and he headed to the locker room early.
The momentum the Crusaders built in the run was immediately sucked out of the building by Carter's injury. While a David Skara tip off of a Tevonn Walker missed three with 2:11 remaining in the half briefly gave Valparaiso a two-point lead, George Washington responded. Tyler Cavanaugh scored five quick points in the remaining two minutes of the half to push the Colonials back out in front, a lead they would never relinquish.
The second half was dominated in every facet by George Washington. An easy layup from Larsen just 14 seconds into the half set the tone. The Colonials quickly pushed the lead back out to nine, taking advantage of their own hot shooting paired with a Valparaiso offense suffering to cope with a clearly hobbled Carter. George Washington coach Mike Lonergan recognized the Crusaders were scrambling to find an offensive leader and mixed in a 1-3-1 zone, the same defense BYU utilized to mount their comeback on Tuesday, to throw off Valparaiso from time to time.
A three-pointer Steph Curry would envy from Matt Hart followed by another three from Jordan Roland, only his second of the year, signaled the game slipping out of control for the Crusaders. George Washington had subbed in the two bench players to rest their starters for the closing minutes of the game. The strategy paid off as the Colonials pushed the lead into double-digits, where it would remain for the rest of the night.
The Colonials began winding the clock on each possession as they did against San Diego State two nights prior. Valparaiso was unable to stop the devastatingly efficient George Washington late game offense from scoring. Meanwhile, the Crusaders continued to struggle on their offensive end.
Despite some late-game highlight reel plays, the Crusaders couldn't claw back into contention. A four-point play from Carter got Valparaiso to 13 down with just over three and a half minutes to play. But, George Washington responded with a Yuta Watanabe basket as the shot clock ran down and prevented the Crusaders from scoring for nearly two more minutes. Another big play, an alley-oop to Vashil Fernandez, went for naught as the game was already out of reach. The play will only live on as a memory of what the Valparaiso senior and fan favorite brought to the table for the past few years.
Roland and Hart combined again to finish off the game with free throws for the Colonials in the final minute. George Washington closed out a 16-point win to clinch the NIT title. Larsen led all Colonials in scoring with 18 points including two big three-pointers. Three other Colonials finished in double figures as well: Cavanaugh, Patricio Garino, and Joe McDonald. George Washington ended the game shooting 44.2% from the floor including 8 of 19 from three.
Peters led the Crusaders in scoring with 15 points and also tacked on 10 rebounds for a double-double. He was the only Valparaiso player in double figures as the team struggled on offense with 14 turnovers and just 28.6% shooting from three.
The win represents George Washington's first NIT championship. The Colonials end the year with a 28-10 record and redemption for missing out on the NCAA tournament. It was a roller coaster year for George Washington with big wins (like Virginia) but also head scratching losses (like Saint Louis). Seniors Larsen, Garino, McDonald, and Alex Mitola end their collegiate careers with a tournament championship and helped the Colonials realize their full potential with the postseason run.
The Crusaders end the season with a program record 30 wins with just 7 losses. In a season where Valparaiso was expected to compete in the NCAA tournament, the Crusaders settle for NIT runners up. The NIT run does represent the most postseason victories Valparaiso has ever strung together in a single year. Valparaiso had four seniors on the floor tonight, but may only be parting with three of them. Fernandez, Darien Walker, and E. Victor Nickerson all played their final collegiate games. Carter also likely played his final game tonight, but has an outside chance of receiving another year of eligibility pending an appeal to the NCAA.