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New York • The BYU Cougars had a lot of big comebacks in them during the 2015-16 season, often roaring back in second halves after playing miserably the first 20 minutes.
That pattern held true on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden but this time coach Dave Rose's club could not deliver the knockout blow.
Instead, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from Croatia did, as Valparaiso reserve David Skara hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to give the Crusaders a 72-70 win. The Cougars cut the deficit to a point with 7.4 seconds left, but failed to cover Shane Hammink on an inbounds play and lost precious seconds off the clock before they could foul him.
After Hammink made one free throw with 4.7 seconds left, the Cougars raced the ball up the court without a timeout left, but Chase Fischer's desperation 3 from 28 feet was blocked by Hammink, and BYU's season was over.
"It came down to the last three minutes of the game, where one team was going to make one more play than the other team," Rose said. "We had two or three chances to make our plays, and they made theirs. The last three or four minutes, that game was anybody's to win."
Having rallied from a 16-point deficit early in the second half to take two leads in the final five minutes, 64-63 with more than four minutes left and 68-67 with 1:17 remaining on Kyle Davis' putback basket, the Cougars had the ball with a minute left and the score tied at 68.
But Kyle Collinsworth missed everything on a 12-foot jumper with 48 seconds left, and Skara hit the dagger 31 seconds later, after a timeout.
The Cougars got back in the game with their 1-3-1 zone defense in the second half, but didn't find Skara who had made 18 3s all season and he made them play.
"Usually in big games late in the season, there is an X factor in the game, and somebody comes and delivers a game that is not on the scouting report, or is not really common. That's what he gave them," Rose said of the 6.4-point scorer, who posted a season-high 15 points.
Fischer made a layup with 7.4 seconds left and BYU called its last timeout, then lost Hammink on a breakaway deep. He fumbled the ball or he would have had a layup.
"When we got the missed free throw and it was tied, and we were coming down with the ball, I really thought that we'd be good enough, that we'd execute and finish that thing off," Rose said. "But it just didn't happen for us."
Not this time.
The Cougars (26-11) played miserably in the first half, and trailed 44-30 after committing 12 turnovers and shooting 36 percent. They looked like a different team after the break, and put together a 13-2 run to make it a contest.
"Pretty much the whole second half they were making runs at us," Valpo coach Bryce Drew said. "… BYU did an excellent job in the second half of making adjustments to our defense."
Rose said the key was getting some transition points by beating Valpo's shot blockers down the court, and it worked for awhile as Fischer and Nick Emery started to heat up. And Collinsworth found his rhythm as the game wore on, making a 3-point play with 4:26 left to give the Cougars their first lead, 64-63, with 4:26 left.
"My legs were a little heavy, to be honest," said Collinsworth, who finished with a game-high 20 points. "I wasn't very springy. I think the team started playing more and thinking less and just being aggressive."
Killed on the boards in the first half, 26-14, the Cougars ended up winning the rebounding battle 45-42. But Valpo's bench outscored BYU's bench 22-6, and had five guys in double figures.
Emery added 18 points for the Cougars, while Fischer had 16 in his final game, 11 in the second half.
"I think in the second half it opened up for us a little bit," Fischer said. "We got out in transition and started attacking the basket, but we just fell short."
That was the story of the Cougars' season a good team that fell a bit short in its biggest games of the year. Of the 11 losses, seven were by five points or fewer.
R David Skara hits a 3-pointer to break a 68-68 tie with 17 seconds remaining and Shane Hammink blocks Chase Fischer's 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the Valpo win.
• Kyle Collinsworth scores 20 points in his final BYU game, Nick Emery adds 18 and Chase Fischer 16.