Valparaiso utilized a stellar effort at the free throw stripe and a solid defensive performance Thursday evening to win on the road in Horizon League action, defeating UIC 64-58 in Chicago, just the Crusaders’ second victory all-time on the Flames’ home court.
Valpo connected on 26-of-34 attempts from the foul line Thursday night, matching its season high with 26 makes while hitting at a 76.5% clip. The Crusaders stepped up their game from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes, hitting 80% (20-of-25) from the line in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Crusader defense held UIC to 39.6% shooting for the game, including just a 28.6% effort from behind the arc, and forced 15 Flame turnovers. Valpo held UIC’s leading scorer, Robo Kreps, who entered the game averaging 15.1 PPG, to just nine points and allowed him to hit just one field goal.
“This has always been a very difficult place for us to play, and I’m just proud of the team for persevering for 40 minutes tonight and getting a win,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “The defense tonight kept us in the game as we struggled with our shooting, and it was great to see our free throw shooting help keep us in the lead, especially the way we hit free throws down the stretch. It’s nice to see this team win in different ways; we shot very well last weekend at home, and now we found a way tonight to win when we didn’t shoot well.”
The combination of free throws and defense allowed Valpo to overcome its worst shooting performance of the season, as the Crusaders shot just 32.1% from the field, including a 4-of-21 (19.0%) clip from downtown. Nowhere was this more evident than the second half, in which Valpo hit just two field goals in the stretch from halftime until there was just 2:49 left to play.
Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) hit a triple with 14:56 to play to push the Valpo lead back up to four points. Almost two minutes later, Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) drove for a layup that made the score 42-35 Valpo with 13:09 remaining.
Over the next 10+ minutes, the Crusaders were unable to connect from the floor, but held UIC to just 15 total points over that same stretch. Valpo was able to keep getting to the foul line, converting on 10-of-13 free throws during the time frame, and never lost the lead, as Robo Kreps split a pair of freebies with 3:11 to play to make the score 52-50 Valpo.
The Crusaders finally broke their drought from the field with a second-chance opportunity, as Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) grabbed the loose ball after a blocked shot and found Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) underneath for an easy layin. On the next trip, Valpo came up with a basket following an offensive board, as Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) grabbed the carom and McPherson took advantage of the second chance with an acrobatic layup.
Little then came up with the defensive play of the game on UIC’s next offensive possession, picking Kreps’ pocket and finding a wide-open Wood down the floor, who took the ball in for the two-handed fast-break dunk to push the Crusader advantage to 58-50 with 1:36 to play. Valpo would let UIC get no closer than four points the rest of the way.
The first half was a back-and-forth affair for the most part, with the Flames holding a 22-21 lead with 6:18 to play in the stanza after a layup by K.C. Robbins. But Valpo would end the opening stanza on a 12-4 run, led by Wood, who scored eight of his points during the spurt. It looked like the Crusaders would take a 31-26 advantage into the break after Wood had a shot partially blocked with just a couple seconds remaining in the half, but Rogers was in perfect position to jump, corral the loose ball and put it back up before landing, hitting a buzzer-beating five-footer to make the Valpo halftime lead 33-26.
Wood led four Crusaders in double figures with 16 points, while Little matched his highest-scoring output of the season with 14 points off the bench to go with four rebounds and three steals. Rogers scored 11 points, while McPherson chipped in ten points of his own. Johnson nearly came up with a double-double, going for nine points and 12 rebounds, and Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) came up with nine rebounds in 17 minutes as Valpo out-rebounded UIC, 41-33.
Robbins paced UIC (5-13, 1-7 Horizon) with 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. Jeremy Buttell scored 13 points for the Flames, while Chris Buchanan added 11 points. Spencer Stewart grabbed eight boards and handed out seven assists in the losing effort.
Valparaiso (9-11, 4-4 Horizon) concludes the two-game Chicago swing on Saturday afternoon, as the Crusaders take on Loyola in a 3 p.m. matinee. The game will be broadcast live throughout Chicagoland on Lakeshore Public Television. In addition, 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.