Valparaiso trailed by just nine with the ball in the early stages of the second half Sunday afternoon at Akron, but the Zips scored the next 14 points to take control as the Crusaders fell by a 77-57 count.
Akron threatened to take a large lead early, running out to an 11-3 advantage just 4:30 into the ballgame, but the Crusaders replied right back. A quick 6-0 spurt was started by a layup from Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) and Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) followed with a free throw and 3-pointer over the next two minutes to cut the lead back down to two points. The lead remained in the single digits for most of the first half and the Crusaders trailed by just six at 29-23 with 3:08 to play in the stanza thanks in large part to nine points by Wood and five points from Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport).
“Akron is a very experienced team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year and is picked to win their division of the MAC this year,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “They also have gotten the chance to play a number of home games already, and I think that all showed early as they jumped out to the lead on us. I was really proud of the way we came back to make it a close game late in the first half.”
But over the last three minutes of the half, Valpo went just 0-for-1 with three turnovers on the offensive end while Akron connected on three shots in a 7-0 run, including a Brett McKnight layup in the waning seconds, to end the opening 20 minutes with the score 36-23.
“That run was really the key point in the game,” said Drew. “We gave up a couple offensive rebounds during that stretch that Akron converted on, and instead of going into the half within six points, we’re down 13.”
The second half got off to a good start for Valpo, as Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) got loose for a layup on the opening possession and Wood followed with a steal and fast-break dunk to bring the deficit back down to nine points. Tommy Kurth (Osceola, Ind./Penn) registered a steal on the next defensive trip to give the Crusaders a chance to cut the margin down to seven or six points, but a turnover ended that opportunity and started Akron’s big run.
Over the next three minutes, the Crusaders committed three turnovers while also missing three shots, while the Zips took full advantage, scoring on six of their eight possessions in the same span. Chris McKnight connected on Akron’s final two baskets of the run, giving the Zips a 50-27 lead with 15:19 to play. Valpo continued to fight and got the deficit back down to 16 points late in the second half, but could get no closer.
“We really came out well in the second half, putting together good offensive and defensive possessions to get back within nine,” said Drew. “But Akron started to go inside to their strength again to pull away.”
Wood led the Crusaders with 18 points, while Johnson added 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Wood also paced Valpo in the rebounding department with five boards, as the Crusaders got outrebounded by a 33-22 clip. As a team, Valpo shot 45% from the floor, but committed 18 turnovers leading to 27 Akron points.
Jimmy Conyers led all players with 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting for the Zips, while Brett McKnight seconded Conyers with 18 points for Akron (9-3). Akron connected on 55.4% of its shot attempts and enjoyed significant advantages over the Crusaders in both points in the paint (38-22) and second-chance points (16-2).
“Akron had taller, stronger players up front, but we’ve got to find a way to rebound the basketball better,” said Drew. “Giving up 13 offensive rebounds is just too many, especially when you consider they ended up with 16 second-chance points. The good news is that we get to come home now for a party at the ARC on New Year’s Eve.”
Valparaiso (5-8) returns to the court on New Year’s Eve as the Crusaders open the heart of the Horizon League schedule with a 7:05 p.m. matchup against Milwaukee. As always, the game can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso) and can be seen on the Horizon League Network, Valpo’s athletic website, www.valpoathletics.com, will have links for live audio, video and statistics.