Valparaiso sent seniors Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]), Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) and Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) out winners in their last regular-season home game at the ARC on Saturday, downing UIC 79-65. The Crusaders will be the fourth seed for the 2011 Horizon League Championship and host Youngstown State Tuesday in first-round action at 7 p.m.
All three seniors started on Saturday and all made an impact in the Crusader victory. Johnson led Valpo with 18 points and three blocked shots while also grabbing five rebounds. Rogers, limited to just eight minutes due to injury, hit an early 3-pointer and grabbed four rebounds. Little pulled down a game-high ten rebounds Saturday to go along with seven points and six assists, and in the process matched Brandon McPherson’s program record for games played, taking to the court in a Crusader uniform for the 129th time.
The game ended up being meaningless in the final standings for the Crusaders, who finished one game back of a three-way tie for first place and were locked into the fourth seed prior to tipoff. But Valpo, led by its senior class, came out full of energy and with a purpose, opening the game on a 14-2 run. Rogers won the opening tip to Little, who found Johnson for a layup mere seconds into the game. Rogers then knocked down a 3-pointer on Valpo’s next possession, and then Johnson hit Little for a layup on the next trip for a quick 7-0 lead.
After Paul Carter got UIC on the scoreboard, Johnson converted another inside basket to put Valpo ahead 9-2. Little hit sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) for a rare 3-pointer from the point guard to give the Crusaders a double-digit advantage just 4:03 into the game. Little then registered a steal on the defensive end, starting a fast break which ended with Buggs hitting junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) for a layup to conclude the 14-2 run over the game’s first 4:26.
“It was a really good start for us,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “We started Mike in there with it being Senior Night, and he gave us great energy. We defended well, shot well and moved the basketball well to open up the game.”
UIC chipped away at the lead and was within three at 22-19 with 7:11 to go in the first half, but the Crusaders answered by scoring on four straight possessions. Inside baskets by Wood, sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) and Little and a mid-range jumper by freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) comprised a quick 8-1 spurt that pushed the lead back into double figures. Little hit Broekhoff for a fast-break layin inside the final minute of the half to give Valpo its largest lead at 15 points, but a pair of free throws by Carter cut the Crusader advantage to 39-26 into halftime.
The Flames would not go away, cutting eight points off the Valpo lead in the first 4:14 of the second half thanks in large part to a trio of 3-pointers by Robo Kreps. UIC continued closing in and got within one point on a pair of occasions, the latest coming at 51-50 with 10:45 to play. The Crusaders answered with a six-point spurt, getting a jumper in the paint and a pair of free throws from Harris and a layup by Wood to push the lead back to seven points.
UIC still remained within striking distance, as a Carter triple at the 5:30 mark cut the lead to 59-55. But Buggs answered immediately with a layup while being fouled, and Johnson would convert two free throws and an inside bucket in another six-point spurt. Finally, with the Flames within seven points at 70-63 with 2:11 to play, Little found Wood on a fast break after a UIC made free throw to immediately respond, and Valpo hit 7-of-8 from the foul line down the stretch to secure the win.
“I was proud of how we responded when UIC made runs at us,” said Drew. “We worked the ball, got some easy baskets and also got out in transition.”
Wood joined Johnson in double figures with 14 points, while Broekhoff came up with nine points and nine rebounds, narrowly missing his third double-double of the season. Harris and sophomore Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) scored eight points apiece, while Buggs matched Little with seven points and six assists. As a team, the Crusaders tallied 20 assists on their 29 baskets, out-rebounded UIC 45-33 and out-scored the Flames in the paint by a 50-18 margin.
UIC (7-23, 2-16 Horizon) got a combined eight 3-pointers and 21 points apiece from Carter and Kreps to lead all scorers. Paris Carter added 10 points in the losing effort.
“21 wins is wonderful and a great accomplishment for these guys, but we want more,” said Drew. “All I’m worried about right now is Youngstown State. If we don't beat them, then the rest doesn't matter. They're a very good team.”
Valparaiso (21-10, 12-6 Horizon) earned its highest seed ever for the Horizon League Championship and hosts a first-round game for the third time in four years as it welcomes ninth-seeded Youngstown State (9-20, 2-16 Horizon) on Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. Tickets will be available at the Valpo Box Office or by phone at 1-877-MY-VU-TIX beginning Monday morning at 10 a.m. and are available now at www.valpoathletics.com/tickets. The game will be carried live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and online on the Crusader athletic website, which will also have links for live video through the Horizon League Network and live stats.