Trailing by one with 3.8 seconds to play, Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) intercepted an inbounds pass just inside halfcourt and took it all the way to the rim, laying it in with 0.9 seconds remaining to give Valparaiso an improbable 55-54 victory over Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve evening at the ARC.
McPherson, guarding Milwaukee’s deep man in the frontcourt as the Panthers inbounded from underneath Valpo’s basket, cut off his man as soon as the pass was thrown and grabbed it just inside the midcourt line. After two long dribbles, the fifth-year senior was in the paint and laid the ball up and over the Panthers’ Tony Meier for the game-winning bucket, McPherson’s only basket of the game.
“I’m obviously very proud of (Brandon) for making the play he did to win the game for us,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “He did a great job, first in finding the pass and making a good adjustment to intercept it. Then he showed his courage in taking it all the way to the rim himself and having confidence he would make the shot.”
Fittingly, a big defensive play set up the deciding basket, as the Crusader defense put together one of its best efforts of the season. Valpo held Milwaukee to just 40.4% shooting and sent the Panthers to the free throw line just 11 times. The Crusaders also registered nine steals en route to forcing 19 turnovers and held a decided 24-13 edge in points off of miscues.
The ending sequence was set up by a number of critical shots from the game’s two high scorers. Milwaukee’s Ja’Rob McCallum knocked down his fifth triple of the game with 2:08 to play to give the Panthers a 51-50 lead. Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) answered in a big way for the Crusaders, hitting a fallaway 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to put Valpo back ahead by two with 1:28 remaining.
Following a Milwaukee turnover, the Crusaders ran the shot clock nearly all the way down before a miss gave the Panthers possession. McCallum pulled up on the fast break and canned another 3-pointer to swing the lead back Milwaukee’s way with 20 seconds to go. After a Valpo miss with seven seconds to play, the Crusaders, having registered only four team fouls, fouled twice to set up a possible 1-and-1 to get the ball back before the game’s final play rendered the foul situation moot.
Milwaukee started the game quickly, jumping out to its largest lead of six points just three minutes in at 8-2. The Panthers still led 13-7 6:40 into the game before the Crusaders put together a 10-0 run over a stretch of 2:28 to take the lead, an advantage they would hold for most of the rest of the game. McPherson knocked down one free throw and Wood two during the spurt, while Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) came up with a steal and fast-break dunk, Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) knocked down a triple and Cameron Witt (Launceston, Tasmania, Australia/Launceston) recorded a layup as well.
Another quick seven-point spurt on layups by Wood and Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) and a 3-pointer by Kenney gave Valpo its largest lead at 26-17 with 4:36 to go in the opening stanza. The Crusaders held a 28-22 lead at the break and maintained the lead into the second half, falling behind for the first time in the final 20 minutes with 8:54 to play on a Michael Tyler tip-in.
Valpo responded immediately to losing the lead, however, as on three straight possessions, Kenney hit a 3-pointer, Rogers got inside for a layup and Kenney drove in for a layup of his own in a seven-point spurt the Crusaders’ way, putting Valpo back on top 45-40 with 7:15 to play. The Panthers scored 11 of the next 16 points, capped by McCallum’s fifth triple, to set up the dramatic closing minutes.
Wood led all scorers on Thursday evening with 22 points, his eighth effort of 20 or more points on the season. The redshirt sophomore also tied with Witt and Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) for game-high honors with five rebounds. Kenney scored ten critical points off the bench in 26 minutes of action as well.
“(Wood) really kept us in the game with some of his shots, including the big 3-pointer with the shot clock about to go off late,” said Drew. “Matt has been phenomenal this year in handling the basketball and finding open players, and he had a couple of good looks tonight while also stepping up and hitting shots. I thought this was also Mike’s best game of the year, especially in terms of his intensity on the defensive end.”
McCallum hit six 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 20 points for Milwaukee (8-6, 1-2), but was the only Panther to reach double figures. McCallum also paced his squad with five rebounds, while Patrick Souter handed out a game-best six assists.
Valparaiso (6-8, 1-1) will look to carry the momentum from Thursday’s thrilling victory into Saturday’s Horizon League showdown with Green Bay at 7:05 p.m. As always, the game can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso) and can be seen on the Horizon League Network, Valpo’s athletic website, www.valpoathletics.com, will have links for live audio, video and statistics.