As graduate student guard Alex Mitola climbed up the ladder to snip away his prize, senior guard Joe McDonald brought over a basketball and urged Mitola, 5-foot-11, to dunk it. Everyone cheered.
“Honestly I thought we deserved it,” McDonald said. “How we just bought in, we’ve worked so hard since the summer. It was a little disappointing not making the NCAAs but I thought the guys bought in just to make the most of this opportunity. That’s what we kept preaching, just to make the most of the opportunity we were given.”
By that time, the party had been going on in the Garden for some time. It started towards the end of the second half, when it became clear that GW would beat No. 1 seed Valparaiso to become the winningest team in program history at 28-10. Seniors McDonald, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen would win their last game, the 136th they’ve spent together as teammates, 76-60.
“It’s been a long four years and right now I’m just so happy,” Larsen said. “We get to go out with a win and show that what we did really helped the program.”
The party started right around the moment when Larsen hit his second three pointer of the night and McDonald swiped the ball from Valpo leading scorer Alec Peters and hit two free throws after getting fouled going down the court. GW led by 15 with less than six minutes left.
Yuta Watanabe started punching balls out of the air (OK, you call them blocks). The sizable GW crowd was screaming. Players waiting to get subbed into the game were coaching from the sideline.
“We couldn’t be happier to win this NIT Championship,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “Extremely happy, especially for our, I hate to always say our seniors, but this class has been great. But Tyler [Cavanaugh], all our guys, even our subs tonight had great minutes.”
As it turned out, Larsen, McDonald and Garino didn’t finish their careers in the game. They were subbed out with less than a minute to play, the result no longer in question.
“These guys, I wanted to leave a legacy,” Lonergan said. “We didn’t make the NCAAs and we were all heartbroken and it’s hard to bounce back but they bounce back. Every team we played including Hofstra was tough, and we got better each game. We played our best basketball end of March.”
For a time, it wasn’t that easy. Both teams came out pushing the ball inside, trading punches. Larsen scored the first five points for the Colonials with a layup and a three-pointer, but Peters got going with seven points in the first six minutes to keep things close.
After Peters hit a three-pointer to pull Valpo within one GW went on a 7-0 run, trapping and pressuring the Crusaders into three turnovers during the stretch. The Colonials took an 18-10 lead.
They went back and forth a bit, but just after Cavanaugh, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after the game, made a three-point play put GW up 24-16, Valpo went on an 8-0 run of its own. It took just one minute. Two threes, five points for guard Keith Carter and two GW turnovers brought the score to 24-24.
Larsen had had enough. With Valpo driving to take the lead, he got position in the paint, readying himself for his sacrifice. The referee called the charge moments after Larsen’s body slapped onto the Garden hardwood and Larsen grinned.
The Colonials got the ball back and, after a miss, Mitola grabbed an offensive rebound and chucked it to Larsen who found Garino open at the top of the key. Garino drained a triple.
“We had three years behind us and so many games before, I think we were calm the whole time and just confident in our games,” Garino said.
Still, the Colonials were up by just one, 32-31, at the half. It took a second-half push, driven by the team’s 1-3-1 defense, to run away with the game. For the second game in a row, the Colonials won by forcing their opponent to shoot threes and miss them – Valpo finished 8-of-28 from beyond the arc.
“It was the 1-3-1,” Larsen said. “It looked like we were back to sophomore year when the 1-3-1 was our go-to. I had a flashback to then, it kept them out of their comfort zone and it was that that got us the win.”
Overall, the Colonials held Valparaiso to 39 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers. After his hot start, Peters never got close to his season-average of 22 points per game. He finished as the lone Crusader in double-figures with 15 points.
As the seconds ticked away on McDonald, Larsen and Garino’s careers, everyone smiled. It was the 136th game since the three became teammates. In games 132-135, the Colonials had fought for their lives, fought each time to play just one more game together. But there were no more games to play for this time. This time, the fight was over, and they were champions.