Unlikely heroes lift Valparaiso to NIT title game against George Washington

2016 NIT Championship - Semifinals

Valparaiso is in the NIT championship game. The reasons are Shane Hammink and David Skara.

Come again?

Yes, Hammink and Skara – the team’s fourth- and sixth-leading scorers, respectively. The first is a starting forward, the second a sub at that position. The first is a redshirt junior transfer, the second a sophomore. The first is a native of the Netherlands, the second a Croatian.

Unlikely as it may seem, they were the difference in Tuesday’s 72-70 semifinal victory over Brigham Young in Madison Square Garden.

They combined to score Valpo’s last 12 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer by Skara with 20 seconds left. Then Hammink recorded the last of his five blocks, on a desperation 3-point attempt by Chase Fischer at the buzzer.

Hammink had exactly five blocks in his previous 33 games this season, an average of 0.2 per night. That’s positively Muggsy Bogues-ian. (Google him, kids.)

And Skara had made just 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, making him one of the least accurate from the arc among the Crusaders’ rotation players.

Yet he went 3-for-5 from deep in this one, en route to a season-high 15 points.

“Usually in big games late in the season, there’s an X-factor,” BYU coach Dave Rose said, “and somebody comes and delivers a game that maybe is not on the scouting report or not really common. That’s what he gave them tonight.”

Which would make Hammink … what? X-factor No. 2? Something like that, anyway.

He provided 10 points and five assists — the biggest of which set up Skara’s tie-breaking triple — in addition to his blocks. (He also had an anxious moment in the closing seconds; more on that in a moment.)

All of which enabled Valpo (30-6) to advance to Thursday’s final against George Washington (27-10), a 65-46 winner over San Diego State in the other semi. That’s a 7 p.m. tip back in the Garden.

That Hammink and Skara would emerge is no more a surprise than the fact that they happen to be foreign-born performers. The Crusaders have a lot of them. They also have a lot of capable players, period.

“Our team,” coach Bryce Drew said, “is in balance the last two years. We’ve had multiple guys score, multiple guys step up. … To beat good teams and win games, you have to have other people step up.”

It was especially true on this night, given the struggles of forward Alec Peters, Valpo’s leading scorer, and the ineffectiveness of center Vashil Fernandez, the team’s defensive anchor. Peters missed his last five shots and went 5-for-15 for his 15 points; he came in averaging 18.5, 26.6 over his previous seven games.

And while Fernandez virtually matched his Division I-leading average with three blocked shots, the Cougars attacked the rim with great success in the second half, when they erased a 16-point deficit to twice take one-point leads late in the game.

The last time came at 68-67, on a basket by Kyle Davis with 1:19 to play. Hammink answered with a free throw to tie it, and BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth airballed a short jumper with 48 seconds left.

Timeout, Valparaiso.

“I was a player,” Drew said, “and so I want to give our guys freedom to make plays. And I don’t want to handcuff them.”

The ball found its way to Hammink in the right corner.

“I was open,” he said. “Could have taken a shot if I wanted to, but drove it.”

As he reached the lane, he saw Skara open on the left wing, beyond the arc.

“I was fortunate for the ball to come to my hands,” Skara said. “Somebody had to shoot it.”

His attempt was true, and as he dressed later at a cubicle in the New York Knicks’ locker room, somebody asked him the last time he hit a decisive shot like that.

“Probably never,” he said.

Fischer’s basket with 7.4 seconds left cut the gap to 71-70, and on the ensuing inbounds play Peters pitched the ball long to a wide-open Hammink.

Who fumbled it.

That allowed BYU’s Zac Seljaas to catch up and foul him with 4.7 seconds remaining. It also left Hammink shaking his head afterward.

Asked what he was thinking, he said, “Wide-open dunk. I was just, ‘Here it is, that’s what I wanted.’ But I didn’t catch the ball. After that, I was just trying to keep on through the possession. They fouled me, so I was thinking just knock down the two free throws, which I didn’t do. I only made one. But OK.”

Well, sort of OK. Davis rebounded his missed second shot and fired the outlet to Fischer on the left wing. He weaved his way across the court and squared up on the right side of the floor, about 30 feet from the basket.

And Hammink intervened.

Now things were definitely OK, where Valpo was concerned. That’s because the Crusaders could be described that way, all the way through their roster. Nothing new there.


Above: Shane Hammink drives past Kyle Davis of Brigham Young during Tuesday’s NIT semifinal.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)


Gordie Jones

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer based in Lititz, Pa.