NEW YORK—George Washington (28-10) beat Valparaiso 76-60 (30-7) in the NIT Championship game on Thursday night.
“When we didn’t make the NCAAs, we were all heartbroken. But we bounced back,” George Washington head coach Mike Lonergan told reporters Thursday night.
Players from four different continents helped GW win America’s second-best postseason tournament on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Center Kevin Larsen (Denmark) led all scorers with 18 points, Patricio Garino (Argentina) scored 14, and Yuta Watanabe, only the fourth Japanese NCAA D1 player, added six. Americans Joe McDonald and Tyler Cavanaugh, a transfer from Wake Forest, combined for 25 points.
The NIT Championship marked the first time Valparaiso and George Washington met in their respective program histories. Both teams amassed single-season wins records while employing contrasting success formulas. Valparaiso sports the NCAA’s leading shot blocker, Vashil Fernandez. They limit opponents to just 64 points per game and ran through the NIT with a .257 three-point field goal percentage defense. Fittingly, George Washington won every game this season but one when eclipsing 64 points. Entering this evening’s matchup, GW scored more than 80 points in fifteen games. Although the mantra ‘defense wins championships’ resonated tonight, the Colonials flipped their usual script.
“Our defense actually won this tournament,” Lonergan told reporters after the game.
Changing defenses and using lengthier wings on smaller Valparaiso guards, GW held Valpo to under 40 percent from the floor and less than thirty percent outside the arc.
“The 1-3-1, my favorite defense, really helped us,” said Lonergan.
The 1-3-1 made Valpo passive, as the Crusaders settled for contested three-pointers and rarely attacking the painted area. That Valparaiso shot only six free-throw attempts in a 40-minute basketball game validates coach Lonergan’s confession that defense won the NIT.
George Washington led 32-31 at halftime and subdued Valpo’s 6’9 four-man, Alec Peters (15 points, 10 rebounds), to two second-half points after the stretch forward led first half scorers with 13.
“You want to play well and you want to win your last game. It’s going to stick with us through the offseason,” said Peters.
Right before the first media timeout, Matt Hart, a Division 3 transfer from Hamilton College, drilled a deep three giving George Washington their first double-digit lead and complete control of the second half. Stretching the lead to as many as 19 with under a minute remaining, the Colonials found answers in everyone.
Ivy League graduate transfer Alex Mitola (Dartmouth) and Hart, a first team “little” Ivy League member as a sophomore, paired for a loud 8 points and 3 assists off the bench.
“Hey, I’m just a little D3 guy from Bowie, Maryland. I told Matt Hart who’s going to give you a better opportunity than a D3 guy like me,” said Lonergan.
For both teams, the NIT championship run shows the NCAA selection committee that good basketball usually prevails over bad politics. When Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the NCAA selection committee chair, scratched the back of his former liege and current Tulsa A.D. Dr. Derrick Gragg, he sent an average Tulsa team to the Big Dance. Four days later their season ended. Although one team won tonight, hopefully the Atlantic 10 and Horizon League, two conferences slighted since figureheads Xavier and Butler bolted, gained a little more respect.