NEW YORK >> A few weeks back, Mike Lonergan's buddy sent him a basketball net. The message was pure motivation: cut one down in March.
With a victory over Valparaiso in the National Invitation Tournament championship game Thursday night, the George Washington coach and his posse of international players can do just that. Smack in the middle of Madison Square Garden, no less.
"I haven't cut down nets in a while, since I was at Vermont I think," Lonergan said. "So it's great to be in this situation."
The gift has become something of a good-luck charm for the Colonials, who hung the net in their locker room and started taking it on the road as a reminder of the prize they pursue.
One more win would do the trick.
"We just kind of touch it sometimes. I touch it before every game," Lonergan said Wednesday. "It was just something to kind of try to keep our focus."
The only team still standing in George Washington's way is top-seeded Valpo (30-6), which turned back BYU 72-70 in the semifinals Tuesday thanks to a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 20 seconds left from reserve forward David Skara.
The fourth-seeded Colonials (27-10) cruised to a 65-46 rout of San Diego State.
"They have a lot of different pieces. They play very well together. They rebound the ball well. They have skilled players that make shots, and they have experience," Crusaders coach Bryce Drew said. "We know how good they are going to be."
Valparaiso was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders went 16-2 in the Horizon League, winning it by three games, but lost to Green Bay in overtime during the conference tournament semifinals.
They've bounced back in a big way, just like GW. And now, both schools are on the cusp of their first NIT crown.
"It's a huge step for our program," Drew said. "To be able to play this deep into March, only a few teams left in the country, getting the exposure on ESPN, and getting to play in Madison Square Garden. I think our fan base and our university, it's just been a great response from our alumni, and everyone is just really excited about what's happened the last few weeks."
Lonergan explained Wednesday that his pal who sent the net actually had the Atlantic 10 Tournament in mind. But after the Colonials lost in the quarterfinals, they were left out of the NCAAs despite wins over then-No. 6 Virginia and Big East Tournament champion Seton Hall.
"We had to rally them because we were all, literally, all a little bit depressed," Lonergan said. "They really responded well and got refocused and made a nice run here in the NIT."
The title game matches the tournament's top two performers in Crusaders star Alec Peters and Colonials counterpart Tyler Cavanaugh, strikingly similar players.
Both junior forwards are listed at 6-foot-9, separated by 5 pounds. Offensively skilled inside and outside, they each shoot 51 percent from the field, better than 42 percent from 3-point range, and at least 82 percent at the foul line.
Peters averages 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. Cavanaugh, a Wake Forest transfer, is putting up 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
"I think when both of them play well, obviously our teams play a lot better and guys feed off of them," Drew said. "But it will be an interesting matchup because they do similar things. They can pick off 3s or duck in the post and score. They both really go at the offensive boards and defensive boards very hard. It will be a good matchup with two very good players."
Consistency is a hallmark, too.
Peters had 20 points or more in seven straight games before scoring 15 in the semifinals. Cavanaugh has reached double figures in every game this season.
And both have been at their best in the NIT.
Peters is averaging 22.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in four games, while Cavanaugh is at 21.3 points and 9.8 rebounds to go with 55.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10 for 18).
"He's been incredible," Lonergan said. "Tyler knows the game. Everything he says, it's amazing his IQ. I'm happy for him because he had a lot of options when he left Wake Forest, and we recruited him in high school. He was a jump shooter and he's become a rebounder. He's worked on his body. I just think going to next year, (he) could be a conference player of the year."
George Washington, located four blocks from the White House in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., figures to have plenty of fan support Thursday night. New York City is about a 225-mile trip up I-95, and some trains take less than 3 hours.
The Colonials, who start players from Argentina, Denmark and Japan, also hope to have a relatively healthy Joe McDonald against Valpo. The senior point guard injured his ankle Tuesday night but stayed in the game, finishing with nine points and six assists.
"I think he'll be OK. I don't know about 100 percent, but hopefully he'll be OK," Lonergan said. "Luckily for us he's one of the toughest kids I've ever coached. It would take a lot for him to miss this. I think it's just a sprain."