“It’s tough coming in to a third game in five days, almost an NBA-like schedule, especially after two emotional, close games that we played on Thursday against Wright State and Saturday against Detroit,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “I thought we were lackluster tonight, but we found a way to win, which is the sign of a good team. Our guys answered every call in the last three minutes.”
The first half saw the Crusaders run out to a 12-4 lead seven minutes in before UIC responded with a 15-2 run to go up 19-14 with six minutes to play in the opening stanza. Valpo, which scored just 20 points in the game’s first 16+ minutes, closed the half with 11 points in the final 3:20, including seven by Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North), to head into the break tied at 31.
The offensive slugfest commenced immediately coming out of halftime, as UIC hit six of its first nine shots from the field to start the half while the Crusaders connected on nine of their first ten. A fast-break dunk by Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) gave Valpo a four-point edge at 48-44 with 14:47 remaining, but the Flames responded with a quick 7-2 spurt, capped by a Robo Kreps 3-pointer, to take a 51-50 advantage with 13:38 left on the clock.
That would be the Flames’ final lead, however, as Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) found Little for a layup on Valpo’s next possession to reclaim the lead for good. Little’s layup started a nine-point Crusader spurt, as Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) got a putback bucket, followed two possessions later by a Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) triple out of a timeout. On the next offensive trip, Broekhoff skied over everybody to tip-in a Crusader miss, pushing Valpo’s edge to 59-51 with 10:57 to play.
While the Crusaders would not lose the lead the rest of the way, UIC refused to go away, as a K.C. Robbins jumper with 5:49 to play brought the Flames back to within three points. Spencer Stewart connected on a pair of free throws just over a minute later to again slash the lead to three points, but Broekhoff responded with his fourth triple of the night, kicking off six straight points by Valpo that pushed the lead back up to 75-66 with 3:19 to go.
The Flames scored 11 of the next 15 points, however, as Stewart hit a pair from the charity stripe with 56 seconds to play to cut the lead to two points. McPherson calmly drilled four straight free throws down the stretch to keep pushing the lead back to two possessions, as UIC never had the ball with a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
“I thought [McPherson]’s play down the stretch was crucial,” said Drew. “Not just stepping up and hitting all four of his free throws in the final minute, but his defense on Kreps on the next-to-last possession, staying in front of him and forcing him into a tough shot that he missed.”
Broekhoff and Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) tied for team-high honors Monday with 18 points, while the former also pulled down nine rebounds. McPherson added 15 points, five rebounds and five assists, while Johnson chipped in 11 points before fouling out. Valpo shot at a 55.6% (30-of-54) clip for the game, including 40% (10-of-25) from behind the arc, but also committed 18 turnovers on the night.
UIC (6-18, 2-12 Horizon) was paced by Jeremy Buttell’s double-double, as the senior posted game highs of 25 points and 12 rebounds. Kreps scored 17 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists, while three other Flames posted double figures in the scoring column.
Valparaiso (13-13, 8-6 Horizon) got to the .500 mark overall for the first time this season with the victory and also moved into sole possession of fifth place in the league standings. The Crusaders’ fight for an upper-division finish continues Thursday night, as a stretch of five games in ten days rolls on at Cleveland State. Tipoff is slated for 6 p.m. CST, and as always, all the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WLPR, 89.1 FM, Lowell) 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.