Valparaiso overcame a five-point deficit in the final two minutes to earn a hard-fought 77-75 victory in a back-and-forth game with Youngstown State in Youngstown, Ohio Saturday evening.
“Our guys just had the hearts of winners tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “We found ourselves down five late, playing our fifth game in ten days, and we’re tired and exhausted, but we stepped up with lots of heart and confidence and found ways to make plays and get the victory in the end.”
The Crusaders found themselves down 72-67 with 2:07 to go after a pair of free throws by Vytas Sulskis, but Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) got the rally started just nine seconds later with a runner in the lane. On the next defensive trip, Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) came up with a steal and found Wood ahead of the pack for a fast-break layup to cut the deficit to one with 1:30 to play.
After another Penguin turnover, freshman Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) had a shot blocked on the offensive end, but didn’t give up on the play, knocking the ball loose from YSU’s DeAndre Mays from the back side. Wood corralled the loose ball just over halfcourt and fed Kenney up ahead for the dunk to put the Crusaders ahead 73-72 with 49 seconds remaining.
Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) made the play of the game on the defensive side of the ball, stepping in and taking a charge on Mays with 35 seconds to play to get the ball back to Valpo. Kenney then stepped up at the free throw line, hitting both ends of a one-and-one at the stripe in the final 30 seconds to secure the game for the Crusaders.
“Cory’s play was crucial for us,” said Drew. “He stepped up and took that charge, preventing Youngstown from scoring and getting the ball back for us.”
The game got off to a rough start for the Crusaders, who found themselves down 17-6 ten minutes into the contest. Valpo outscored the Penguins 24-11 over the half’s final ten minutes, however, to take a two-point lead into halftime, thanks in large part to 11 straight Crusader points from Wood in one stretch.
Coming out of the break, it was Johnson who was getting it done on the offensive end, as he poured in 12 points in the first seven minutes of the second half. Youngstown State hung with the Crusaders basket for basket though, even after a stretch midway through the half where McPherson, Wood, and Kenney each connected on 3-pointers in a four-possession span.
Kenney came up with a big play on both ends shortly thereafter, blocking Mays’ attempt at a jumper, corralling the rebound, and taking it all the way to the rack for a layup that put Valpo ahead 56-53 with 8:30 to play. 90 seconds later, Kenney and Wood connected on back-to-back triples that pushed the lead to 62-57 with 6:57 remaining. But Youngstown State would go on a 15-5 spurt over the next five minutes to take the lead and set up the closing sequence.
Kenney had the best overall game of his rookie season, going for career highs of 15 points, eight rebounds and five steals while also handing out five assists. Wood paced four Crusaders in double figures with 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-5 from downtown, while Johnson posted 19 points. Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) went a sterling 6-of-7 from the floor, including two 3-pointers. McPherson only scored seven points, the first time in 11 games he hasn’t been in double figures, but more than contributed with a season-best eight assists while not committing a turnover.
“Matt played the best game of his career tonight,” said Drew. “During our stretch of seven wins in nine games, we had different guys step up other than our top three scorers, and that’s what we got tonight from Matt. He stepped up tonight, especially in the last few minutes guarding Mays superbly on the defensive end. His effort on both ends of the court really gave us a lift.”
The Crusaders shot just 49.1% for the game, but increased their shooting percentage to 58.6% in the second half, as they played the final 20 minutes without committing a turnover. Valpo also regained its touch from behind the 3-point line, hitting on 10-of-18 (55.6%) from downtown for the game.
“It was a big key not turning the ball over in the second half,” said Drew. “Obviously it was a superb job by our entire team on the offensive end maintaining control of the ball after nine first-half turnovers, and it allowed us to move and share the ball and make big plays offensively.”
Youngstown State (8-17, 2-13 Horizon) got 24 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting from Vytas Sulskis to lead its effort. Kelvin Bright added 18 points of 6-of-9 shooting, while Mays also posted a double-double with 16 points and ten assists.
Valparaiso (14-14, 9-7 Horizon) has already matched its highest total of Horizon League wins, tying the nine wins it had in 2007-08 in its inaugural season in the league. The Crusaders have two league contests remaining as they continue to jockey for positioning in the final standings, both of which will be played at the ARC. The first of those games comes this Wednesday, as Valpo hosts Loyola at 7:05 p.m. The game will be available live throughout Chicagoland on Lakeshore Public Television, 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.