Valparaiso ended the 2010 calendar year on a four-game winning streak as the Crusaders led for the final 28 minutes in a 69-52 victory over Ball State at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Tuesday evening.
Coming off a game in which a pair of players scored 30+ points, the Crusaders went back to their balanced offensive ways on Tuesday. All four Valpo starters who average in double figures scored at least 10 points, led by 17 points from junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]). Wood scored 15 of his 17 in the first half as he hit all four of his 3-point attempts in the first 20 minutes.
Fifth-year senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) was right behind Wood, finishing the night with 16 points, including a 6-of-7 effort from inside the arc. Senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) added 11 points, while sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) chipped in 10 points as well.
While the scoring was evenly distributed, a couple of career highs in other categories came to the forefront on Tuesday night. Little’s passing was crisp all night long as he closed the evening with a career-best seven assists, surpassing his previous high of five. Sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell), the shortest player on the court, came up huge on the glass, leading all players with a career-high eight rebounds, while Wood tied a season best in the rebounding column with seven caroms.
“I was very impressed tonight with the way we played to win our fourth game in a row,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “It’s a great compliment to (Brandon and Howard) and their teammates as to how hard they worked to prepare for today’s game.”
It was a sluggish start Tuesday for both sides, but more so for the Crusaders, who turned the ball over six times in the game’s first eight-plus minutes. A layup by Ball State’s Tyrae Robinson gave the Cardinals a 13-9 advantage with 11:35 to go in the first half, but the Crusaders gave up just three points to BSU over the next 6:45 and took advantage on the offensive end to claim the lead for good.
The run started with a layup by senior Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian), and two trips later Buggs found Johnson inside for an easy basket to tie the game at 13. A Wood 3-pointer with 8:09 to play in the half gave Valpo a lead it would never relinquish. Broekhoff hit a triple of his own to make it 19-13, and following a 3-pointer by Jauwan Scaife, Wood responded immediately with another trifecta. Little added a pair of free throws to close out the 15-3 run and give Valpo a 24-16 advantage with 5:54 left in the half.
Ball State was back within five points at 26-21 with under three minutes to go in the half, but one more Crusader spurt before the break pushed the lead into double figures. Little found Buggs for a fast-break layup off a steal to start the run, and then hit Wood for a transition 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game. Jarrod Jones converted a layup on BSU’s next trip, but Wood responded with yet another triple to close the quick 8-2 spurt. Valpo would eventually go into the locker room up 37-25 after Rogers put back a Little miss at the halftime buzzer.
“I thought Brandon really got us going in the first half,” said Drew. “He picked us up after a slow start, and got in a rhythm where he was shooting the ball well.”
The Cardinals scored the first five points out of halftime in the opening two minutes of the second half, leading to a Crusader timeout. The offense responded out of the stoppage, sparking a big run that pushed the Valpo lead to 16 points. It started with Johnson working inside for a layup, followed by Wood finding Buggs for a driving layup.
On the next trip down the court, it was sophomore Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) hitting Little for a layup to push the lead back into double digits, and then Little found Broekhoff for a 3-pointer to make it 46-32. Broekhoff then converted a fast-break layup, followed by another inside basket from Johnson. The Crusaders scored on six straight trips out of the timeout to put together a 13-4 run and claim a 50-34 lead with 13:40 to play.
Ball State (6-4) had one last run left in it, closing to within eight points with eight minutes remaining, but a huge offensive rebound and two free throws by Little sparked the Valpo response. After a Ball State free throw, Valpo capped a superb passing sequence with a Little dish to Johnson for an easy layup, and then Broekhoff followed with a tough jumper in the lane. Buggs grabbed the board off a BSU miss on the next defensive possession and started the fast-break chance which resulted in a Little layup, capping a quick 8-1 spurt which pushed the lead back to 63-48 with 4:43 remaining and putting the game away.
“We knew Ball State is a very good team even when they’re trailing, so we knew they would come back,” said Drew. “The turning point is how we responded to their run at the eight-minute mark, and Howard really came up big for us with some great plays during that stretch. I thought then we handled the final few minutes with good poise and made Ball State chase us in the end.”
The Crusaders shot at a 52% (26-of-50) clip for the game, their third straight contest over the 50% mark, and hit an impressive 73.1% (19-of-26) from inside the arc. Valpo also owned a 32-25 advantage on the glass and has now out-rebounded three of its last four opponents.
Ball State was led by 18 points and seven rebounds from Jones, but he was the only Cardinal to finish in double figures in the scoring column. The Cardinals did come up with nine steals, led by a game-best three by Randy Davis.
Valparaiso (10-4) carries its second four-game winning streak of the year into the start of the heart of Horizon League play Saturday, as the Crusaders make the trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse to face Butler on New Year’s Day. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. CST, and all the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and online at www.valpoathletics.com, which will also have links for the Horizon League Network live video feed, as well as live stats.