Trailing by 14 points with 7:30 to play Thursday night at UIC, Valparaiso ended the second half on an 18-4 run and then scored the first six points of overtime en route to a 68-66 victory over the Flames in the Horizon League opener for both teams.
“I'm just really proud of our basketball team with the courage, the heart and the tenacity that they displayed tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “I thought that Erik was really the heart and soul of our team tonight; he just didn't let us stop competing. He's also our best defensive player on the ball, and I thought his defense on Kreps tonight was just outstanding.”
The Crusaders found themselves down 58-44 after a basket by UIC's Darrin Williams with 8:40 remaining, and then would go the next 90 seconds without scoring before senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) hit a pair of free throws to start the Valpo run. Right off the inbounds pass, sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) came up with a steal and found Little for a layup to quickly move within ten points.
After forcing an empty UIC possession, Buggs found junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) for a foul-line jumper to move within 58-50 with 5:40 to play. Paul Carter hit a pair of free throws and then got a putback bucket for the Flames over UIC's next two trips, but senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) found Little for a layup and Wood hit a free throw to keep the Crusaders within nine points.
30 seconds later, Wood picked Robo Kreps' pocket and took the ball in himself for a quick layup to move Valpo to within 62-55 with 3:59 remaining. Valpo then drew an offensive foul on Kreps and took advantage for a layup by freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) on the other end, and followed with a second-chance basket by sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) to make it a one-possession contest with 2:43 to play.
The Crusader defense stepped up, forcing an offensive foul and a turnover on the next two UIC offensive possessions, to keep it a one-possession contest in the waning minutes. It was then Broekhoff who stepped up, knocking down a triple from the right wing with one minute left on the clock off a feed from Little to tie the game at 62-all.
Again, the defense kept the Flames from cracking the scoreboard, as Buggs drew a five-second closely guarded violation on Kreps to get Valpo the ball back with the shot clock off. A Crusader turnover with five seconds to play gave UIC one last chance in regulation, but Broekhoff blocked Kreps' last-second 3-point attempt to send the game into overtime.
“I'm really proud of our team's effort in the second half,” said Drew. “We did a good job making extra passes to get easy baskets. And without those two defensive plays by Erik and Ryan, we lose the game.”
The Crusaders jumped all over the Flames at the start of overtime to take control. Wood started with a quick post-up in the lane for an easy layin just seconds into the extra session, and the junior then finished a fast break started by Broekhoff after the latter grabbed a defensive rebound. After another UIC miss, Wood found Johnson inside for a reverse layup to put Valpo ahead 68-62 with 3:42 to play in overtime.
“That was a great start to the overtime period for us,” said Drew. “We made some great passes to get six quick points. I thought both defenses throughout played with an incredible level of intensity, and we were able to get stops early in overtime to help us get that lead.”
While the Crusaders couldn't find another bucket in overtime, their defense held UIC to just two baskets in the extra session. Carter nailed a jumper with 2:12 remaining to bring the Flames back within four, and then a putback by Brad Birton moved UIC within 68-66 with 56 seconds to play. The Flames had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead on the final possession with the shot clock off, but Valpo forced a tough effort in the lane from Zavion Neely that rolled harmlessly off the win as the Crusaders opened the league season with a victory.
Valpo's only lead prior to overtime came at 1-0 a minute into the ballgame, as UIC went on a 9-1 spurt after the Crusaders scored the game's opening point. The Crusaders trailed by as much as 14 points in the opening 20 minutes and went into halftime down 36-24 after hitting just 9-of-25 (36.0%) from the floor and 2-of-11 (18.2%) from 3-point range in the first half.
UIC scored the first basket of the second half to again go up 14, but the Crusaders answered with a quick 8-0 run. Little started the spurt with a free throw and then came up with a steal and layup, while Johnson later added an old-fashioned 3-point play. A layup by Broekhoff with 17:15 remaining in the second half cut the deficit to 38-32, but six points was as close as Valpo would get until the late charge.
Valpo was led by 19 points from Wood, who scored 14 of his game-high points in the final 25 minutes. Wood also grabbed a team-high six rebounds on the evening. Johnson scored 15 points, Little 12 and Broekhoff added 10 as four Crusader starters finished in double figures. Broekhoff and Buggs each tied for game-high honors with four assists, while the former also blocked a pair of shots.
UIC (4-4, 0-1 Horizon) was paced by 18 points from Carter. Birton added 11 points and Neely chipped in 10 points in the losing effort. Kreps, who entered the game as the Flames' leading scorer, was hounded all night by the Crusader defense and was held to just 1-of-13 shooting while also committing eight turnovers.
Valparaiso (5-2, 1-0 Horizon) looks for a road sweep to begin Horizon League play as the Crusaders travel to Loyola Saturday afternoon. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m., and all the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City) or seen live on Lakeshore Public Television. Links for live audio and video, as well as live stats, will be available at www.valpoathletics.com.