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George Washington beats Valparaiso for NIT championship

George Washington Colonials forward Tyler Cavanaugh puts up

George Washington Colonials forward Tyler Cavanaugh puts up a shot while defended by Valparaiso Crusaders forward Alec Peters during the men's basketball National Invitation Tournament final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, March 31, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

They arrived at George Washington in the fall of 2012 with an eye to restoring a once-proud program brought low. They can leave feeling their mission has been accomplished.

Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen joined a Colonials team that won only 10 games the year before. They leave after a program-record 28-win season and an NIT championship, George Washington’s first postseason basketball title.

The trio totaled 45 points Thursday night as George Washington beat Valparaiso, 76-60, in the NIT final, pulling away in the second half before 7,016 at Madison Square Garden.

“There aren’t a lot of people and teams that get to play their final game and win a championship in it,” Larsen said. “We got to do that and it feels pretty awesome. [Garino and McDonald] and me all wanted to bring this program to a place like this.”

GW (28-10) — which beat Hofstra, 82-80, in the first round of the NIT on Alex Mitola’s off-balance jumper with 2.5 seconds left — narrowly missed out on an NCAA berth at the end of a regular season that included wins over Virginia, Seton Hall and Virginia Commonwealth.

“We didn’t make the NCAA and we were all heartbroken,” said coach Mike Lonergan, the net from one of the baskets around his neck. “We had to bounce back and we did bounce back. We found a little passion for defense to go with our offense and we turned that into this.”

Larsen had 18 points, Garino added 14 and McDonald had 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists. All made the all-tournament team along with Most Outstanding Player Tyler Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh scored 15 points to lead GW to its semifinal win over San Diego State and had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists for an encore.

Alec Peters had 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead Valpo (30-7) and also made the all-tournament team.

The mold for GW’s win was cast early in the second half. The Colonials came out of the locker room with a one-point lead and went on a 15-4 run to break the game open. McDonald and Garino each scored four points in the burst, McDonald had three and Matt Hart, who averages nine minutes a game, capped it with a long three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer for a 47-35 lead with 12:22 to play.

The Crusaders were 2-for-10 with three turnovers while GW was breaking away. They never got closer than 10 after that as they shot only 39 percent from the floor and 29 percent on three-pointers. GW was 8-for-19 on three-pointers and turned 14 Valpo turnovers into 20 points.

“We wanted to change the culture and get back to winning,” McDonald said. “That’s what we did.”

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