Valparaiso won its 11th Horizon League game, the most in a season since the Crusaders joined the league, and maintained its spot atop the league’s standings in tight fashion, earning a 58-56 victory over Wright State Saturday evening at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“This was a hard, hard fought win for our team tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “You have to compliment Wright State, because they battled back after we took a big lead. They came back and made the ballgame go right down to the last shot. I thought the thing that won it for us tonight was our defense.”
The Crusader lead was just one at 52-51 coming out of the under-four media timeout of the second half, but senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) hit two free throws to give Valpo a little breathing room. Then, after senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) forced a five-second violation on the defensive end, he got open inside and laid in a pass from sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) while being fouled. Little converted the free throw for the three-point play, giving Valpo a 57-51 edge with 2:26 to go.
WSU’s Vaughn Duggins split a pair of free throws on the Raiders’ next trip, and after a Valpo miss, Duggins drove for a layup to make it a one-possession game yet again at 57-54 with 1:27 to go. The Raider senior then knocked down a pair of free throws after an empty Valpo possession to bring WSU within 57-56 with under a minute to play. A Crusader shot clock violation gave the ball back to Wright State with 22 seconds to go, but Little came up with a huge defensive play, harassing Duggins into a double-dribble with just 10 seconds left on the game clock.
Off the turnover, the Crusaders inbounded the ball to Broekhoff, who knocked down his first free throw to make it a two-point game. The sophomore missed the back end, with WSU grabbing the rebound for one final push. The Raiders’ N’Gai Evans brought the ball into the frontcourt, hounded by sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) the whole way. Evans got the ball to the top of the key, but with no room to take a shot, passed underneath to Duggins, who didn’t have enough time to get a shot off before the final horn sounded on the Valpo victory.
“[Howard and Erik] were really the catalysts for our defensive effort tonight,” said Drew. “They came up with the three big plays on the defensive end. Howard drew the five-second call for the first big play, and then did a magnificent job in defending Duggins to force the turnover late. Then I thought Erik did a great job on Evans in the final seconds, making him take more than six seconds to get down the floor and get into the paint. I thought those three defensive plays allowed us to come out on top.”
It was a tight ballgame for the most part in the first half, as the score sat at just 19-all over 15 minutes into the game. Freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) gave Valpo a spark off the bench late in the opening half though, knocking down a pair of free throws and then draining a 3-pointer to give the Crusaders a five-point lead. Valpo would eventually take a 30-24 lead into the locker room after a late layup by Johnson.
Cole Darling started the second half for Wright State with a 3-pointer, but Little responded with a triple of his own right away to keep it a six-point lead. Two minutes later, junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) and Little converted layups on back-to-back trips to push the lead to nine points.
With just under 15 minutes to play in the game, Wood almost single-handedly made it a double-digit game. Up by seven, Wood canned his first 3-pointer of the contest. The junior then came up with a steal on the defensive end, and on the ensuing possession, sophomore Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) found him for another triple to make it 45-32 in Valpo’s favor with 13:56 remaining. But the Crusaders scored just seven points over the next 10 minutes, allowing WSU to piece together a 19-7 run to get back to within one point and set up the endgame.
Little led the Crusaders on Saturday with 17 points, just one off of his season high, on 7-of-11 shooting. Johnson and Wood each chipped in ten apiece. No Valpo player grabbed more than four rebounds or handed out more than two assists, but as a team, the Crusaders out-rebounded WSU, 26-21, and tallied 13 assists on 20 field goals. Valpo shot at a 52.6% (20-of-38) clip for the game, but struggled with the basketball, committing 18 turnovers.
Duggins paced Wright State (17-11, 10-6 Horizon) with 21 points, including an 8-of-10 effort from the foul line. Evans scored 14 points and registered five steals on the evening, while Darling nailed all four of his field goal attempts en route to 10 points.
Valparaiso (19-7, 11-3 Horizon) takes to the road for its next-to-last road game of the regular season on Wednesday evening, as the Crusaders play at Milwaukee. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. CST, and as always, 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 live video through the Horizon League Network and live stats.