It’s difficult when you catch up and let it slip away. We’ve done that a lot – Kyle Collinsworth

NEW YORK — In the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden, BYU experienced a microcosm of its season.

The Cougars fell way behind in the first half, mounted an impressive comeback in the second half but, in the end, couldn’t finish.

Top-seeded Valparaiso edged second-seeded BYU 72-70 to advance to the NIT championship game Thursday night.

The Cougars rallied from a 16-point deficit early in the second half and had a chance to win it. But Chase Fischer’s desperation, potential game-winning, long 3-point attempt was blocked at the final buzzer by Valpo's Shane Hammink.

“It’s difficult when you catch up and let it slip away. We’ve done that a lot,” said guard Kyle Collinsworth. “We got behind and we’ve been a very good second-half team. It’s disappointing that we actually got the lead and gave it back to them. It’s tough to lose, but we fought and that’s all I can ask.”

While Valparaiso (30-6) has an NIT championship in its sights, BYU concluded its season with a 26-11 record.

“We’ve been in this situation more times than a coach would like,” said coach Dave Rose, recalling games this season when the Cougars had dug themselves an early hole. “These guys had confidence in our ability. We just needed to play better. We had a group of guys in that second half that were determined that they were going look similar to us and the way we played all year. We got ourselves in a position to finish that game.”

Despite the Cougars’ terrible start that saw them shoot 36 percent and turn the ball over 12 times in the first half, they led by one point, 68-67, with 1:17 remaining.

With the score tied, 68-68, and with less than one minute left after a missed free throw by Hammink, Collinsworth airballed a jump shot.

“When we got the missed free throw, it was tied and we were coming down, I really thought that we’d be good enough, that we’d be able to execute and finish that thing off,” Rose said. “It just didn’t happen.”

Moments later, Crusader forward David Skara buried a huge 3-pointer to give Valpo a three-point cushion, 71-68, and that turned out to be the game-winner. Skara came up big for the Crusaders, finishing with 15 points, including three 3-pointers. He eclipsed his season-high of 14.

“He had a great game,” Rose said of Skara. “Usually in big games late in the season, there’s an X-factor in a game. That’s what he gave them tonight. I think he was a 30-percent shooter, maybe. Three-point shots were not his specialty and he made quite a few tonight.”

Fischer scored with 7.4 seconds on the clock before Hammink hit a pair of free throws to lift the Crusaders to a 72-70 edge with 4.7 seconds on the clock. Then Fischer’s final shot was swatted away.

“I wasn’t completely aware of the time or I probably would have looked back,” Fischer said of that attempt. “I saw Nick Emery after the play was over, on my left, open. Or I would have taken another dribble to try to get to the basket or get a better look. It happened pretty fast.”

“It came down to the last three minutes of the game. One team was going to make one more play than the other team did,” Rose said. “We had two or three chances to make our plays. They made theirs. The last three or four minutes was anybody’s to win.”

Trailing 44-30 at halftime, Valpo’s Alec Peters scored early in the second half to propel the Crusaders to a 46-30 advantage.

“We were having a difficult time with their half-court defense as far as executing our offense,” Rose said. “We turned the ball over quite a few times.”

“We were just hesitant. We were waiting for them to make plays instead of being aggressive. Sometimes that happens,” Collinsworth said. “It’s a tournament, it’s Madison Square Garden and a new opponent that we’re not familiar with. But we bounced back and found ways to take the lead.”

Then the complexion of the game changed in a New York minute — or two. The Cougars went on a 13-2 run that pulled them to within 50-46 with 14 minutes remaining.

BYU’s 1-3-1 zone, which has helped it win several games this season, was crucial during the comeback.

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“The zone gave us a chance to get back in the game. We got some long shots with some long rebounds that allowed us to get a better pace in transition,” Rose said. “We made some baskets before they could get their defense set. Our advantage was to score early in transition before they could get set. That’s what the zone allowed us to do. They were trying to kill some clock and then shoot late in the clock. We did a good job of contesting them.”

Fischer praised Valpo’s performance.

“They’re a really tough team. In the first half, they got us in foul trouble and we were turning the ball over and missing shots,” he said. “It all culminated into them getting a big lead, taking our momentum. In the second half, it opened up for us a little bit. We got out in transition and started attacking the basket and getting more of our shots. We just fell short.”


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