And then there were four. A day before the NCAA tournament prepared to carve itself down to the Final Four teams over the weekend, the NIT was one step ahead.
Florida and George Washington opened Wednesday night in a battle of major vs. minor conferences, while San Diego State and Georgia Tech closed out the action. George Washington was coming off a 17-point thrashing of Monmouth, while Florida made good on its No. 2 seed despite not being able to host home games.
San Diego State had likewise been able to carry the second seed in its bracket, while Georgia Tech toppled top-seeded South Carolina. Valparaiso is the only No. 1 seed making the trip to New York's Madison Square Garden, but Florida and SDSU had a chance to make it a threesome of twos.
Let's take a look at Wednesday's results, as well as an updated bracket and a schedule.
|NIT Final Four|
|March 29||7 p.m.||ESPN||No. 1 Valparaiso vs. No. 2 BYU|
|March 29||9 p.m.||ESPN||No. 4 George Washington vs. No. 2 San Diego St.|
Updated bracket available here
George Washington 82, Florida 77
Tyler Cavanaugh scored a game-high 23 points, and Kevin Larsen added a double-double as George Washington held on late for an 82-77 win.
The two teams traded shots back and forth throughout, with the game rarely being separated by more than two buckets. George Washington held the lead for a majority of the game and went ahead for good when Cavanaugh hit a free throw to break a 73-73 tie with one minute, 32 seconds remaining. Cavanaugh hit a three on the Colonials' next offensive possession and was responsible for eight of their last nine points.
The Atlantic 10 offered a highlight of Cavanaugh's three:
Larsen was the offensive fulcrum early before finishing with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three assists. The 6'10" senior has been brilliant all around throughout the NIT, exceeding his season average in points in every game and flashing his passing skills. He's posted 15 assists through George Washington's first three games.
Cavanaugh, Larsen and Patricio Garino accounted for 55 of the Colonials' 82 points. As a team, overall George Washington shot a solid 47.7 percent, but its trio of stars was 21-of-38 from the field. The trio also accounted for five of the team's eight three-pointers.
Florida's effort was led by freshman KeVaughn Allen, who knocked down eight of his 15 shots on his way to a 22-point effort. Allen added four rebounds and two steals on a night when junior leader Kasey Hill struggled his way to a 5-of-18 effort. Another freshman, Kevarrius Hayes, made six of his seven shots for his second straight strong outing. That helped atone for Dorian Finney-Smith, who shot 3-of-9 in his final collegiate game.
George Washington held Florida to 43.1 percent overall, and the Gators hit just seven of their 24 shots from distance.
Had the two upperclassmen who led the team all season been able to come through, the Gators almost certainly would be heading to New York. Instead, it's the underdog George Washington that will have a chance to win its first NIT crown.
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan spoke of his team's goals, per Steven Goff of the Washington Post. “We wanted to go to the NCAA tournament. It didn’t happen, so the only thing we could do was try to get to New York. Now that we’re there, hopefully we will play loose. Hopefully we will enjoy it and keep winning.”
Cavanaugh also highlighted the team's disappointment about not making the tournament: “We were definitely disappointed [failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament], but we blew some opportunities. So we regrouped as a team, and this is a great opportunity...We’ve been reenergized, and now we have a chance to win a championship.”
Lonergan added compliments for Cavanaugh: “I thought they would really stay on him because he has been shooting so well. But they weren’t there, so he made the right decision.He lined it up. That’s definitely the guy I want shooting from that spot.”
San Diego State 72, Georgia Tech 56
Three San Diego State players scored in double figures, led by Trey Kell's 18 points, as the Aztecs turned up their defensive intensity and did just enough on defense to earn a 72-56 win over Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets shot a decent-enough 44 percent overall but were held at bay by San Diego State's ability to control the pace. They made just two three-pointers and had 12 fewer field goal attempts, thanks in large part to their 13 turnovers. San Diego State, disciplined throughout, coughed the ball up just six times and grabbed 12 offensive boards to make up the difference.
A majority of Kell's production came from beyond the arc, as he was responsible for four of the Aztecs' six three-pointers. Winston Shepard added 12 points, while Malik Pope turned in a 10-point, 10-rebound effort despite a 4-of-14 shooting effort.
Miles Simon of ESPN complimented Kell:
The Aztecs also got 24 points from their bench, led by Jeremy Hemsley with nine points. Zylan Cheatham and Angelo Chol also added six points.
Marcus Georges-Hunt, playing in his final collegiate game, scored a team-high 18 points and six rebounds for Georgia Tech. Fellow senior Charles Mitchell also played well in a 12-point, 12-rebound outing.
The Yellow Jackets held the game close throughout the first half, even going into the halftime break tied at 31. San Diego never trailed in the second half, however, and led by nine or more points for the final five minutes and 45 seconds.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher commented on the play of Shepard and Kell, per Derek Togerson of NBC San Diego. "[Kell] got us going to start," said coach Fisher. "Shepard got us going in the second half, and we guarded. And that's what we have to do. Our goal is to go to New York and win two games."
Shepard discussed not making the tournament: "I think once we got over that initial disappointment I think we're one of the best teams, if not the best team, in this tournament. We're just happy to still be playing. When we get to New York there will only be eight teams left in the country still playing."