Valparaiso took the lead for good midway through the first half Tuesday at the Athletics-Recreation Center, defeating Green Bay 75-67 in the first round of the Horizon League Championship. The win is the Crusaders’ 20th of the season, the ninth 20-win campaign for the program under head coach Homer Drew.
“What an accomplishment for this group of players to get to 20 wins,” said Drew. “We started out the season real strong, and then hit a rough stretch halfway through the year. But the players never stopped giving their all, and have really stepped up recently, winning our last five games. Now we get the chance to go to Indianapolis and try to earn the league championship.”
Mike Schachtner nailed a pair of free throws for Green Bay just under nine minutes into the game to put the Phoenix ahead 8-7, but Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) responded with two freebies of his own with 10:47 remaining in the first half to give Valpo the lead for good. Green Bay briefly tied the contest at 13, but the Crusaders ended the opening half on a 16-4 run over the last nine minutes, capped by five straight points from freshman Bryan Bouchie (Washington, Ind./Washington), to go into the break ahead 29-17.
Green Bay scored the first basket of the second half, but Valpo scored 12 of the next 16 points over a three-minute stretch, buoyed by four points each from Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, Ohio/Upper Sandusky) and Shawn Huff (Helsinki, Finland/Makelanrinne), to gain its largest lead at 41-23 with 16:39 to play. The Crusaders maintained a double-figure lead for the next seven minutes, until a Rahmon Fletcher triple got the Phoenix back to within nine points.
Valpo kept Green Bay at arm’s length, holding a lead around 10 points for the next few minutes and going ahead 60-49 on a fast-break layup by Jarryd Loyd (Lincolnwood, Ill./Niles West) with seven minutes remaining. But the Phoenix rallied, going on a 15-4 run over the next 4:17, capped by a Fletcher breakaway layup, to cut the lead to four points at 64-60.
But Loyd responded immediately, hitting a jumper just inside the arc to extend the lead to 66-60 and end the Phoenix spurt. Valpo proceeded to get the job done from the free throw stripe in the final two minutes, converting 7-of-10 free throws and getting a second-chance basket from Igbavboa on one of the misses to hold off Green Bay.
Huff led five Crusaders in double figures with 16 points and added seven rebounds. Igbavboa connected on 12 free throws on his way to 14 points and also pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Diebler was named the U.S. Army Horizon League Player of the Game after going for 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Loyd also scored 13 points, while Bouchie chipped in 11 of his own.
Four Green Bay (15-15) players finished with at least 10 points, led by 14 points on 5-of-7 accuracy from Mike Schachtner. Terry Evans grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. The Phoenix outshot the Crusaders 45.5%-37.7%, but Valpo took advantage of 45 trips to the free throw line, making 31 attempts.
Valparaiso (20-12), which finished tied for fourth place in its inaugural season of Horizon League action, advances to the League Championship quarterfinal on Friday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. The Crusaders will be taking on third-seeded Wright State, which defeated Detroit to advance on Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. CST, and as always, on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WVUR, 95.1 FM, Valparaiso; WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WWLO, 89.1 FM, Lowell) or online at www.valpo.edu/athletics. The game will also be videocast online on the Horizon League Network.