Bakari Evelyn is back. That’s a big deal for the Valparaiso Crusaders.
Evelyn busted out of a season-long slump Saturday with 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting as Valparaiso held off George Washington 82-79 on the road.
“I told Bakari — we met a couple of times, and I told him, ‘Look, I believe in you. Everyone believes in you,’” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “He really enjoyed watching that ball go in the bucket today.”
Evelyn entered Saturday's 2016 NIT title game rematch shooting 31 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range. The Nebraska transfer projected as one of the Crusaders’ top players after averaging 12.6 points per game last year in his first season at Valparaiso. Lottich said he knew during practice Friday that Evelyn could be in line for a big game when Evelyn said George Washington’s Smith Center is a shooting gym.
Evelyn was right. The redshirt junior guard knocked down 6 of 9 3-pointers and dragged Valparaiso back in the game late in the first half. Evelyn scored or assisted on 16 of the Crusaders’ last 19 points of the first period to cut George Washington’s 10-point lead to just two at halftime.
Valparaiso raced out to a 13-point lead with just over nine minutes remaining in the game, but George Washington stormed back and tied the game with 3:30 left on Terry Nolan’s three-pointer. The Crusaders responded, however, as Ryan Fazekas’ two clutch threes and free throws helped seal the win.
“There (were) a couple of loose balls that we did not get that I thought really could have broken their back,” Lottich said. “That is a tough, scrappy team.”
The Crusaders didn’t have an easy time of it in the first half, either. George Washington entered the game ranked 296th in the country in KenPom.com’s schedule-adjusted offensive efficiency, but the Colonials shot 66.7 percent in the first period. Maceo Jack smashed his career high of 10 points in the first 20 minutes with 18 points.
Valparaiso’s offensive surge came in large part from the 3-point line. George Washington (2-8) announced Friday that starting center Arnaldo Toro would undergo season-ending hip surgery, so the undersized Colonials threw constant double-teams at Crusaders big man Derrik Smits. Smits found passing lanes as the Crusaders reversed the ball around — Fazekas joined Evelyn with six bombs and the Crusaders (6-4) knocked down 15 of 27 from deep.
The last time the Crusaders hit 15 3s? December 12, 2013, against Southeastern University. Saturday’s barrage came at the right time, as Valparaiso closed out a stretch of nine games in 24 days, with six of nine away from home.
“I didn’t know what we were gonna get tonight,” Lottich said. “We’ve asked a lot of these young men, and I’m really proud of them, proud of the way they fought.”