Valparaiso fought back from double-digit deficits in both halves in Horizon League Championship semifinal action Saturday evening against Cleveland State and tied the game at 65 with under three minutes to play, but the Vikings pulled out a 78-73 victory over the Crusaders.
“I’m just really proud of our effort tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “Our guys just kept fighting even when we were down big, and never gave up. I’m proud of the fact we came all the way back to tie the game against a very good Cleveland State team.”
Cleveland State, which was playing its first game in a week, jumped out quickly on Valparaiso, which was playing its second game in under 24 hours, and went ahead by double figures just seven minutes into the contest. The lead was 12 at 23-11 after a Cedric Jackson 3-pointer with 12:23 to go in the half, but Valpo scored the next five points to get back to within seven. The run was short-lived, however, as the Vikings responded with a 13-2 run to take an 18-point lead at 36-18.
But as they have done so often this season, the Crusaders made a late first-half run. Valpo ended the first half by scoring 15 of 18 points over the final six minutes, led by five points from Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) and four points from Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North), to get back to within 39-33 at the half.
The Vikings put together another quick spurt at the start of the second half, scoring the first nine points of the half to go ahead 48-33 with 18:13 to play. The CSU lead remained double figures for the next eight minutes, until McPherson knocked down two free throws with 10:27 remaining in the game to cut the deficit to nine points.
The next few minutes were evenly matched, as a free throw by Cleveland State’s J’Nathan Bullock put the Vikings up 61-52 with 7:35 to play in the game. But the Crusaders put together yet another run on the backs of their seniors. Jarryd Loyd (Lincolnwood, Ill./Niles West) started the comeback effort with a pair of free throws, and following a basket by the Vikings, knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the margin to 63-57 with 6:05 remaining.
Neither team scored for the next two minutes, until Bullock hit a shot with 4:12 to play to put Cleveland State up eight. Shawn Huff (Helsinki, Finland/Makelanrinne) responded immediately with a 3-pointer of his own at the 4:05 mark to make it a five-point game. Rogers registered a steal on the Vikings’ next possession, and Loyd made it count with another triple with 3:29 left to bring Valpo to within 65-63. Cleveland State missed the front end of a one-and-one effort on its next trip, and Loyd beat the defense downcourt for a layup with 2:50 to play to tie the game at 65, the first tie since the opening tip.
The Vikings responded with a 3-pointer on their next possession to pull back ahead by three, and scored the next four points as well to take a 72-65 lead after a pair of free throws with 44 seconds to play. But the Crusaders had one last comeback attempt in them, as Loyd converted a layup with 32 seconds left. After two more Viking free throws, Loyd knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game to cut the lead to four points.
Cedric Jackson hit a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to push the CSU advantage back up to 76-70, but Loyd once again responded, hitting yet another triple to make it a one-possession game with eight seconds remaining. That was as close as the Crusaders would get, however, as the Vikings knocked down two more free throws with seven seconds left to secure the win.
Loyd led the Crusaders with a career-high 25 points, 18 of which came in the game’s final 7:11 during Valpo’s furious comeback effort. Huff and Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) each added 15 points, while Rogers scored 10 points and tied for game-high honors with eight rebounds.
Jackson led Cleveland State (21-11) with 22 points and eight rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting. Bullock contributed 19 points and eight boards, while Norris Cole scored 11 points off the bench.
Valparaiso (21-13) will now wait to see if it earns a post-season berth this year. With the addition of the College Basketball Invitational this season, 113 teams will play in post-season action (65 NCAA, 32 NIT, 16 CBI). The Crusaders, who have won six of their last eight games, are currently ranked 91 in the Rating Percentage Index and own five wins over top-100 RPI teams this season.