The Valparaiso University men’s basketball team punched its ticket to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the postseason NIT on Tuesday evening in front of a record-setting sellout crowd at the ARC, locking down defensively in the second half and limiting Saint Mary’s to just 13 second-half points in a 60-44 victory over the Gaels in quarterfinal play.
With the victory, the Crusaders set a new program record with their 29th win of the season. The win was also Valpo’s 17th at the ARC on the year – also a new program record – and the third postseason victory for this year’s Crusader squad, the most postseason wins in a single season in program history as well.
It looked like Saint Mary’s would have the momentum going into the locker room at halftime, as the Gaels went on a 7-0 run to take a 31-24 lead with 2:46 to go in the first half. But it would be over nine minutes of game action on both sides of the halftime break until Saint Mary’s scored again, as Valpo put together an incredible defensive stretch of basketball, holding the Gaels to 0-of-10 shooting with three turnovers in the span.
Offensively, it ended up being a 16-0 Valpo run spanning both sides of the intermission that gave the Crusaders the lead for good. In similar fashion to last year’s Horizon League Championship title game win over Green Bay at the ARC, Valpo seized some momentum heading into the halftime break. Tevonn Walker (Montreal, Quebec/Vanier College) hit a baseline jumper to stop the Gaels’ run, and then on the final possession of the half, Keith Carter (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East [Saint Louis]) hit Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) for a corner 3-pointer as the Crusaders moved within 31-29 at the break.
Then, Valpo took control early in the second half. A triple by Darien Walker (Chicago, Ill./Simeon [John A. Logan/Arizona Western]) at the 18:47 mark gave the Crusaders the lead for good, and he followed on the next possession with a baseline drive for a two-handed slam.
After forcing a miss on the defensive end, Carter secured the rebound and hit Peters on the break for a layup to force a Saint Mary’s timeout with the lead 36-31. A mid-range jumper from Carter and a tip-in by Shane Hammink (Millingen aan de Rijn, Netherlands/Oakley College [LSU]) capped the 16-0 run, making it 40-31 Crusaders with 14 minutes to play.
Saint Mary’s closed to within five points just past the halfway mark of the second half at 44-39, but Valpo responded with an 11-2 run over the next six-plus minutes to secure the victory. Hammink hit Carter on the fast break for a layup to force a timeout from the Gaels at 47-39 with just under eight minutes to play, and Peters scored four straight points to push the lead into double figures four minutes later. The celebration was on at the ARC, with Peters, Carter, Darien Walker and Fernandez all eventually leaving the court in the final minute to standing ovations.
After shooting 48.1% in the opening half, the Crusaders limited Saint Mary’s (29-6) to just 6-of-29 (20.7%) shooting in the final 20 minutes, including just a 1-of-11 mark from 3-point range from a squad which entered the game tops in the nation in field goal percentage. Dane Pineau was the only Gael to score in double figures, finishing with 11 points.
Peters led Valpo with another stellar night offensively, going 7-of-11 from the floor for a game-high 20 points, grabbing eight rebounds and matching a career best with five assists. Carter finished with 11 points as well as all five Valpo starters scored at least six points. Fernandez posted another triple-double type line with nine points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots, while Hammink tallied a season-best eight rebounds to go with his six points.