National Invitation Tournament action resumed Tuesday with two semifinal showdowns at Madison Square Garden in New York City, as the final four teams sought to snag spots in Thursday's championship game.
In early action, the No. 1-seeded Valparaiso Crusaders squared off against the No. 2-seeded Brigham Young Cougars, with the Horizon Leaguers looking to capitalize on their first-ever trip to the NIT semifinals.
The evening's other showdown pitted the No. 2-seeded San Diego State Aztecs against the upstart No. 4-seeded George Washington Colonials, who entered Tuesday riding a high thanks to consecutive wins over Monmouth and the University of Florida.
Both clashes featured stylistic contrasts—with efficient offenses matched up against some of the nation's stingiest defenses— but only two programs could clinch berths in the NIT championship game, which will take place at MSG on Thursday evening at 7 p.m. ET. ESPN will broadcast the contest.
With the Big Apple's bright lights shining on some of the college game's unheralded stars, here's a look at how things played out Tuesday night.
|Valparaiso vs. BYU||Valpo 72, BYU 70|
|George Washington vs. San Diego State||GW 65, San Diego St. 46|
|Championship: Valparaiso vs. George Washington||7 p.m. ET, March 31|
Valparaiso 72, BYU 70
Valparaiso used a three-pointer from David Skara with 20 seconds remaining in regulation to creep past BYU, 72-70, and clinch a spot in the NIT championship.
The game-winning bucket was captured on Twitter by Valparaiso' official Twitter account:
The Cougars had a final look at the basket from long range as time expired, but a block by the Crusaders' Shane Hammink thwarted BYU's title hopes.
Skara and Alec Peters led the Crusaders with 15 points apiece, while Hammink posted 10 points, five assists, three rebounds, three steals and five blocks in the win.
BYU, meanwhile, received a game-high 20 points from Kyle Collinsworth, who posted his eighth 20-plus-point game of the season, according to BYU Game Notes on Twitter. Collinsworth added five rebounds, five assists and five steals to his final line as BYU came alive in the second half following a sluggish first-half showing.
Valpo entered Tuesday's semifinal with the nation's eighth-ranked defense, according to KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency metric, and it showed throughout the first half. BYU mustered just 10 points over the game's first 10 minutes and committed nine turnovers during that span.
The Crusaders weren't much better as they accumulated seven turnovers during that span, but their offense was operating in a slightly more efficient gear thanks in part to some nifty interior passing, as the program's official Twitter account documented:
And while the Cougars climbed back from an ugly 3-of-12 shooting start thanks to some sharp long-range shooting, five of BYU's 10 made field goals in the first half came from beyond the arc. Compounding matters was that the West Coast Conference qualifiers missed six of 11 free throws as they were repeatedly handed chances to chip away at the deficit.
For a BYU offense that entered the night ranked 42nd in efficiency entering the night—63 spots ahead of Valparaiso—such shortcomings weren't acceptable.
But when halftime came to a close and the second half rolled around, the Cougars experienced an awakening.
A 16-6 run over the first five minutes, 47 seconds of the final frame pulled BYU to within four points of the Crusaders, and the Cougars eventually clawed all the way back to take the lead with 4:26 remaining in regulation in a game that resembled one played just days ago in the Elite Eight, according to the Washington Post's Gene Wang:
Valpo-BYU reminiscent of UVa-Cuse.— Gene Wang (@gene_wang) March 30, 2016
BYU looked like it had a real chance to steal the game from Valpo as the second half was winding down, but the Cougars' inability to solve the Crusaders defense ultimately doomed them. All told, BYU shot 38.2 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three and 64.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Valpo only converted 42.6 percent of its total field-goal attempts, but improving on that mark may not be of the utmost importance if it can conjure up a similar defensive display when Thursday's final rolls around.
"It was a matter of surviving down the stretch," Peters said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Jay Drew.
Valpo head coach Bryce Drew reportedly expressed a similar sentiment after BYU pushed the Crusaders into an uncomfortable spot down the stretch, per Jay Drew:
Bryce Drew echoed what Peters said -- better to go to NIT Finals than going to NCAA first round and losing.— Jay Drew (@drewjay) March 30, 2016
"It came down to the last three minutes of the game, where one team was going to make one more play than the other team," BYU head coach Dave Rose said, per Jay Drew. "We had two or three chances to make our plays, and they made theirs. The last three or four minutes, that game was anybody's to win."
"Pretty much the whole second half they were making runs at us," Bryce Drew said, according to Jay Drew. "… BYU did an excellent job in the second half of making adjustments to our defense."
George Washington 65, San Diego State 46
George Washington took care of San Diego State, 65-46, in the evening's second semifinal to clinch the school's first-ever appearance in the NIT championship game.
Tyler Cavanaugh paced the Colonials with 20 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double in the span of four NIT appearances. Cavanaugh also kept his double-figure scoring streak—which dates back to George Washington's season opener—alive in the win.
Patricio Garino added 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting, while George Washington shot 42.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three as a team.
Season-long trends indicated Diego State was looking for a slugfest, but George Washington didn't indulge the Aztecs' tactical preferences, as freelance hoops scribe Patrick Stevens explained:
George Washington played one of its best games of the season tonight. It also completely outworked San Diego State from start to finish.— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) March 30, 2016
Although SDSU entered the evening ranked No. 2 overall in adjusted defensive efficiency, third in opponents' average points per game (60.7) and first in opponents' shooting percentage (37.1), the Colonials didn't appear fazed.
George Washington's offense—which quietly crept into the top-35 in efficiency—opened up a 15-point halftime lead behind 4-of-10 shooting from three and 14 points off of nine San Diego State turnovers.
Stevens used some advanced numbers to put the first-half efficiency disparity in perspective:
First-half points per possession --- George Washington: 1.13 (35 points/31 trips) | San Diego State: 0.63 (20 points/32 trips)— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) March 30, 2016
The Colonials opened up a 20-point lead six minutes into the second half, and the Aztecs simply didn't have the firepower necessary to keep pace.
San Diego State's 174th-ranked offense ultimately shot 28.8 percent from the field and 13.6 percent from three, and the defense had no answer for Cavanaugh in the post.
George Washington will now seek to replicate Tuesday's winning formula Thursday against the Crusaders.
The Colonials now have a template handy for solving one of the nation's top-ranked defenses, and their approach against Valpo should be consistent with the one they brought to the table in yet another upset.
And given the wins George Washington has rattled off over No. 1-seeded Monmouth, No. 2-seeded Florida and No. 2-seeded San Diego State over the past eight days, it wouldn't be crazy to consider the Colonials a favorite when the NIT championship tips off.
"I think our inability to make shots affected our concentration at the other end, and all of a sudden you've got a snowball going downhill that turns into a gigantic glacier as it builds up steam," San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
"We've been playing really good basketball lately and shots have been falling, and one of the biggest games of the year, we couldn't buy a bucket," Aztecs big man Skylar Spencer added, per the Associated Press. "Just real bad timing."
Conversely, the Colonials flashed improvement on both sides of the ball en route to an upset win.
“We have a lack of depth," George Washington head coach Mike Lonergan said, per Wang. "We have a lot of weaknesses, and we’re playing against some of the best coaches in the country, and we got exposed a couple of times. I’m proud of them. We're playing for a championship."
And with one more game remaining, Cavanaugh made it clear the Colonials have the makeup necessary to take home an NIT title.
"This is a great team," Cavanaugh said, according to Wang. "I’m so excited to be able to play two more days with them, one more game. We’re a balanced team, and that’s very fun. Everyone contributes, and that’s why we won tonight."
Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless noted otherwise.