An epic battle between two former conference rivals saw Valparaiso take down Oakland Tuesday night in Rochester, Mich. by a 103-102 count to capture the Lou Henson Award Tournament championship. Senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) was named Tournament MVP while junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) earned All-Tournament honors as well as both surpassed 30 points on Tuesday evening.
“I'm just really proud of our basketball team tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “Obviously Cory and Brandon led us, but the entire team had great patience and really competed hard tonight. We knew Oakland was such a good team and Coach Kampe is one of the best coaches around, so we knew we would have to play at a high level to have a chance and Brandon and Cory really led us to the win.”
For the Crusaders, it was their second trophy to bring back to campus this season. Valpo captured the Upper Division Championship at the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend earlier this year. The Crusaders defeated Eastern Michigan on Monday night to advance to Tuesday's championship game, where they snapped the Golden Grizzlies' 16-game homecourt winning streak.
Johnson set a new career high on Tuesday night, scoring 33 points on a near-perfect 12-of-13 night from the floor. The fifth-year senior scored his points in a variety of ways, knocking down a trio of 3-pointers and also connecting on nine shots in the paint. Johnson got the job done from the free throw line as well when sent there by the Golden Grizzlies, hitting 6-of-7 from the charity stripe. Over the two games, he averaged 22.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game to earn the MVP honors.
Meanwhile, Wood had one of the best nights of his career as well, hitting 12-of-20 from the floor, including 4-of-6 from behind the arc. He also connected on 7-of-8 of his free throw attempts for 35 points, the second-highest effort through his first two years. The redshirt junior also grabbed a team-high seven rebounds and handed out four assists in his 38 minutes of action, and averaged 28.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game over the tournament's two contests.
The back-and-forth affair started out in the Crusaders' favor Tuesday evening, as Valpo jumped out to a 14-7 lead at the game's first media timeout as the pace was fast and furious early on. Sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) handed out four assists on Valpo's first six field goals, including a pair of layups by senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) and back-to-back 3-pointers by Wood and sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport). Wood also found Johnson on the fast break for a two-handed slam during the game's opening stretch.
Oakland cut the lead down to three points at 15-12, but Wood nearly single-handedly helped extend the Crusader lead over the next two minutes. An 18-foot jumper with the shot clock running down started the junior's torrid stretch from the floor, and then Wood hit back-to-back floaters, the second coming from near the top of the lane, on Valpo's next two trips. After a three-point play by the Grizzlies' Ledrick Eackles, Wood responded with a triple on Valpo's next possession to close a stretch of nine straight points and give the Crusaders a 24-15 lead with 11:38 to go in the half.
Oakland went on a run to erase the Crusader advantage over the next few minutes, thanks in large part to being sent to the foul line numerous times over the stretch. The Grizzlies re-took the lead for the first time since 2-0 at 33-32 with 6:57 left in the half, as a pair of free throws capped an 18-8 spurt in which Oakland went 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Valpo regained the edge at 37-35, but another 11-2 run by the Grizzlies gave them a seven-point edge with two minutes left in the half.
Johnson and Wood knocked down 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions as the Crusaders pushed back right before the break. But the last shot of the half went to Oakland and it made it count, as Drew Valentine knocked down a trifecta of his own to give the Grizzlies a 52-45 halftime advantage. Valpo shot 58.6% in the opening half, including 50% from behind the 3-point line, but Oakland went 21-of-24 from the line in the first 20 minutes in addition to 51.9% field goal shooting to take the seven-point lead at the break.
Out of the locker room, OU's Reggie Hamilton converted a 3-point play as the Grizzlies gained a double-figure edge at 55-45, but then the Crusaders counter-punched with another run. Buggs found Wood for another 3-pointer to start the spurt, and Johnson then hit a 12-foot fadeaway in the lane to cut the lead to five. Following a Hamilton 3-pointer, Johnson hit a pair of free throws and Buggs then drove the lane for his first basket on a layup to make it 58-54 Oakland with 17:51 left.
After Oakland split a pair of free throws, Johnson continued his strong play with another layup and Buggs then found Broekhoff on a fast-break chance for a layup to move within one point. Two possessions later, Buggs found Johnson for another inside basket that turned into a 3-point play as Valpo regained the lead at 61-59 with 15:44 left.
Oakland tied the game on its next possession, but then Johnson really went to work. Three straight layups inside by the fifth-year senior on feeds from senior Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian), freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) and Wood helped the Crusaders push the lead to 67-63, and three trips later Johnson got free for another layup as he scored 11 straight Valpo points and the Crusaders led 69-63 with 12:48 to go.
“I was very pleased to see the way we remained composed when down ten points and slowly started to come back,” said Drew. “Our players really did a great job seeing the floor and making the extra pass during that stretch. Cory and Brandon both hit some shots and had some confidence they would hit the shots, and their teammates did a good job finding them in good positions to score. The players really just escalated their teamwork.”
The advantage remained between four and six points for the greater part of the next five minutes, but a mini-spurt by the Crusaders with seven minutes left threatened to put the game away. Leading by six, Wood hit a pair of free throws and then Johnson hit a 3-pointer on a second-chance opportunity created by a Rogers offensive rebound. Oakland split a pair of free throws, but then a third-chance putback by Rogers extended the Valpo edge to 89-77 with 5:08 remaining.
Oakland stayed within striking distance with 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions by Hamilton and Larry Wright to move back within six points, but out of the under-four media timeout, Rogers hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to 91-83 with 3:18 to play. After a miss by the Golden Grizzlies, the Crusaders were scrambling with the shot clock running down, but Rogers drilled a 27-foot turnaround 3-pointer to make it 94-83 Valpo with 2:28 left.
Wright hit a jumper for Oakland on its next trip, but again the Crusaders ran the shot clock all the way down before Buggs unleashed a triple from the right wing that banked in off the glass to give Valpo a 12-point lead with 98 seconds to play. For both Rogers and Buggs, it was their first make from behind the 3-point arc on the season.
The two teams traded free throws and then Oakland scored a pair of baskets after Valpo split free throws before Will Hudson hit two free throws with 44 seconds to go to make it 101-93. The Crusaders turned the ball over on their next possession, but not before 19 seconds ran off the clock to leave just 25 seconds to play. OU's Travis Bader nailed a 3-pointer almost immediately off the inbounds though, as the Grizzlies moved within 101-96.
Buggs missed a pair of free throws after being fouled, but Broekhoff tipped the rebound out to Wood and Buggs made the most of his second chance, hitting both freebies to push the lead to seven points. Wright nailed a 3-pointer just four seconds later, and then following a pair of Valpo misses from the stripe, hit another triple to make it 103-102 Valpo with 3.0 seconds left.
The Crusaders again missed a pair from the charity stripe, but again it was Broekhoff all over the second miss, gaining control with 1.3 seconds left on the clock. After a lengthy review regarding whether the clock had stopped too soon, Valpo was given possession out on the sideline with 1.3 seconds remaining. Broekhoff's inbounds was tipped out by an Oakland player with 0.2 seconds left, and another inbound ran out the clock, the victory and the Crusader championship.
Johnson and Wood were joined in double figures by Rogers, who scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds and handed out three assists without a turnover in 22 minutes off the bench. Valpo shot an impressive 63.2% for the game (36-of-57), including 67.9% (19-of-28) in the second half. The Crusaders also had one of their best 3-point shooting exhibitions of the year, drilling 10-of-19 from behind the arc, and hit 70% (21-of-30) of their free throw opportunities.
The Crusaders actually out-rebounded the Golden Grizzlies, who entered the game out-rebounding their opponents by seven boards per game, 28-27 on the night and held a 19-8 advantage in the category for the second half. Buggs handed out a season-best seven assists on the evening as Valpo dished out 18 assists against just 13 turnovers.
Oakland (7-7), the Summit League preseason favorite and a squad which defeated #7 Tennessee just 10 days ago, placed five players in double figures, led by 26 points from Hamilton and 24 points from Wright. Hudson scored 15 and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, while Eackles added 13 and Bader 10. 6'10” Keith Benson, named the Lou Henson Award winner last year as the nation's top mid-major player and who entered the game averaging a double-double, was limited to just five points and one rebound in 23 minutes of action.
“We did a tremendous job defensively on Benson tonight,” said Drew. “We knew he was one of the most skilled post players we would face all year long, and I thought Cory and Kevin did a good job playing him in our man-to-man and Ryan and Mike did a really good job coming over into the double-team on him.”
Valparaiso (9-4) will now take a week off for the Christmas holiday before returning to the court at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Tuesday, Dec. 28 to host Ball State. The game can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and online at www.valpoathletics.com, which will also have links for live video through the Horizon League Network and live stats.