Trailing by 11 with four minutes remaining in the first half, Valparaiso went on one of its biggest runs in recent history, scoring 26 consecutive points while holding Milwaukee scoreless over a 12-minute span, completely turning the tide of the game. The Crusaders would go on to a 63-51 victory over the Panthers Thursday evening at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
Valpo closed the first half with 14 straight points in the final 3:03 of the stanza, keyed by nine points on three 3-pointers from Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, Ohio/Upper Sandusky), who would go on to score a career-best 19 points. The third Diebler triple gave the Crusaders a 29-28 lead with just 39 seconds remaining in the stanza. Milwaukee came down and missed a 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining, with Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) corralling the board. Igbavboa gave it up to Diebler, who gave it back to his fellow senior with a nifty behind-the-back pass on the fast break for a layup with two seconds to play in the half, making it a 31-28 game at the break.
The momentum didn’t stop coming out of the halftime pause, as Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) got a third-chance basket on a tip-in on Valpo’s opening possession of the second half. Six of Valpo’s 12 points to close the run would come on second-chance opportunities, as Cameron Witt (Launceston, Tasmania, Australia/Launceston College) had a put-back dunk and Little got inside for another offensive rebound and layup. Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) and Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) also added baskets during the spurt.
“When you make shots, you get everyone else pumped up,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “You get a little extra hop in your step and the energy gets contagious, and that’s what I thought happened there at the end of the first half. Second half, we were concerned with the first four minutes, but we came out with the same intensity, especially on the defensive end, and showed how this team is getting better and better."
By the time Milwaukee’s Deonte Roberts connected on a pair of free throws with 12:08 to play, the Panthers had gone 12:02 without scoring a point and Valpo went from trailing by double digits to leading by double digits. During the 26-0 run, the Crusaders went 10-of-18 from the floor, while their defense held Milwaukee to 0-of-15 shooting as well as seven turnovers, including five straight at one point in the second half.
The Panthers would not go away without a fight, as Roberts scored six in a row for Milwaukee to bring it back within 43-34 with 11:28 to play. But again, it was the second-chance basket helping out the Crusaders, as Buggs got inside position off a Diebler miss for a layup to make it an 11-point game.
Two more times, the Panthers would cut it to single digits. A Tone Boyle triple with 8:18 remaining made it 48-39 Valpo, but Diebler got loose ahead of the pack out of the press and Igbavboa found him for an easy fast-break layup. Boyle connected on another 3-pointer nearly four minutes later to make it an eight-point game, and the Panthers had a possession with a chance to get closer, but they missed a three and then Little came up with a steal and went coast-to-coast for a layup to make it 56-46 with 3:38 to play.
The start of the game was not kind to the Crusaders, as Milwaukee connected on seven of its first 11 3-point opportunities to open the contest. Leading 7-6, Valpo saw Milwaukee go on a 15-5 run over the next six-and-a-half minutes to open up a 21-12 advantage, capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by James Eayrs. Eayrs would connect on another three with 7:43 remaining in the opening stanza to give the Panthers their biggest lead at 26-14.
“We've been down before,” said Drew. “This team has never stopped playing hard and has never folded, and it paid off for us tonight.”
Diebler got plenty of help on the offensive end, as two other Crusaders finished in double figures. Buggs, in his return to the lineup after missing two games due to injury, finished just two points off his career high, scoring 14 points. The 6’0” guard also ripped down a career-best seven rebounds. Little added 11 points of his own and came up with a career-high five steals on the defensive end. Igbavboa, also returning to the lineup following injury, chipped in eight points and a game-best nine rebounds off the bench.
Boyle led Milwaukee (12-7, 7-2 Horizon) with 15 points, but hit just 4-of-17 from the field. Eayrs hit four 3-pointers on his way to 14 points, while Roberts connected for 11 points.
Valparaiso (6-14, 3-6 Horizon) returns to the ARC floor on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. to host second-place Green Bay. The matchup with the Phoenix, as always, can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WVUR, 95.1 FM, Valparaiso; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City) and online at www.valpoathletics.com. Live video and statistics will also be available through the official Crusader website.