Trailing by 18 with 6:29 to play in the first half, Valparaiso rallied to within five at halftime and then locked down on defense in the second half, allowing Akron just six field goals after the break as the Crusaders earned a 74-66 victory in non-league action Saturday at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“This was just a fun, wonderful night,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “We were worried coming in because Akron is in second place in the MAC, and is one of the top teams in the nation at forcing turnovers, so we knew we had to handle the basketball well against them. We did an excellent job over the last 30 minutes not turning the ball over, maintaining possession and getting good offensive opportunities.”
The first half was marked by sharp-shooting offense from both sides, as Akron and Valpo each shot better than a 60% clip in the opening stanza. Akron led by just three at 16-13 with 11:52 remaining in the stanza, but the Zips proceeded to put together a surgical 21-6 run over the next 5:10. Six different Akron players scored during the sustained spurt, with Nate Linhart capping the run with a 3-pointer to make it 37-19 with 6:29 to play in the half.
But the Crusaders responded immediately, wiping away over half of Akron’s biggest lead over the next two minutes. Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) answered Linhart’s triple with a 3-pointer of his own, and after a Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, Ohio/Upper Sandusky) steal, De’Andre Haskins (Long Beach, Calif./La Lumiere [Ind.] School) knocked down a pair of free throws. Diebler then canned a stop-and-pop trifecta on the fast break after an Akron miss, and when Cameron Witt (Launceston, Tasmania, Australia/Launceston) hit a leaner with 4:37 to play in the half, the Crusaders’ deficit was down to 37-29.
The lead hovered around the ten-point mark for the next couple minutes, and it was 43-32 Akron with 2:30 remaining in the half before Valpo closed the opening stanza with a quick spurt. Andrew Ferry (Milwaukee, Wis./Milwaukee Lutheran) opened the run by splitting a pair of free throws, and after an Akron offensive foul, Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) got free inside for a layup.
Little came up with a steal as the Zips were bringing the ball up and got the ball to Haskins, who returned the favor underneath to Little for a fast-break basket to cut it to six. Jimmy Conyers slowed Valpo’s momentum with a jumper with 57 seconds to play, but after the two teams traded misses, Igbavboa came down with a defensive board with five seconds remaining and got it to Diebler, who was fouled on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer. The senior calmly drilled all three free throws heading into the locker room to make it 45-40 Akron at the break.
The two squads played very even for the first few minutes of the second half, as the Zips pushed the lead out to just eight points at 53-45 with 15:28 to play on a putback in the lane by Mike Bardo. But from that point, Akron scored just 13 points the rest of the way, as the Crusaders held the Zips to just three field goals over the final 15+ minutes. Valpo got within one possession by scoring six straight in a minute span, getting baskets off turnovers by Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) and Diebler and a tip dunk by Witt to close the gap to two points at 51-53 with 12:45 to play.
It was still a two-point game with 10:07 remaining when Igbavboa got called for a foul during the scramble for a rebound, and a technical was assessed to Drew during the stoppage. Akron knocked down three of the four ensuing free throw attempts, but the sequence seemed to ignite the Crusader seniors. On their next offensive trip, Diebler fed Igbavboa with a perfect alley-oop to cut it back to three, and the next time down, Diebler put Igbavboa in position for the old fashioned 3-point play to tie the game at 59 with 9:18 to play.
The scoring would slow from that point, as Akron held a 62-61 advantage with just over five minutes to play. That would be its last lead however, as Igbavboa found a cutting Rogers for an easy layup to give Valpo its first outright lead of the game with 5:13 to play. Free throws extended the advantage to four until Akron’s Darryl Roberts knocked down a shot with 3:32 left, but a minute later, Haskins nailed a pull-up jumper from the foul line to push it back out to four points.
Brett McKnight drained a pair from the foul line to cut it back to two points, but with 1:12 to play, Diebler hit two of his own to again make it a two-possession game. The Crusaders forced an Akron miss, but turned the ball back over to the Zips with 40 seconds left. Chris McKnight’s layup attempt was swatted away by Igbavboa into the hands of Little, who was fouled and calmly made two more free throws with 32 seconds left to extend the lead to six. One last Akron turnover sealed the game in the Crusaders’ favor.
Valpo showcased an extreme balance on Saturday evening, as six different players finished in double figures. Little led the way with 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting, while Haskins added 12 points and six rebounds off the bench. Igbavboa and Witt each scored 11, with Igbavboa also ripping down a game-high eight rebounds. Rogers and Diebler chipped in ten points apiece. Diebler also matched career highs with six assists and four steals while not committing a turnover.
“I thought this was probably De’Andre’s best all-around game here,” said Drew. “He really did a magnificent job rebounding, especially on the defensive end, holding Akron to only one shot. He, Urule and Howard did a superb job on the defensive boards in the last five minutes.”
Akron (17-10) was paced by 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting by Linhart. Brett and Chris McKnight each had 12 points as well in the losing effort. The Zips shot at a sizzling 68.2% (15-of-22) clip in the first half, but hit just 28.6% (6-of-21) from the field in the second stanza. Akron also committed 18 turnovers, which the Crusaders were able to convert into 23 points.Valparaiso (8-20) continues its regular-season ending three-game homestand as the Crusaders host Cleveland State on the back end of a doubleheader with the women’s team. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and as always, all the action 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.