Led by 14 second-half points from freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East), Valparaiso cut a 19-point deficit with 16 minutes to play to just five points with eight minutes remaining at Butler Saturday afternoon, but the Bulldogs eventually handed the Crusaders their first Horizon League defeat of the season, 76-59.
“The big difference to us today was the start to both halves,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “We were down a total of 17-3 before the first media timeout of the first and second halve, and that just never gave us the chance to get in a flow, because we had to spend all our time trying to come from behind. I'm disappointed that we never gave ourselves a chance and weren't ready to play to start either half.”
The deficit coming out of the locker room was 11 points for the Crusaders, but Butler scored the first eight points of the final 20 minutes, capped by a jumper in the paint by Khyle Marshall to claim a 44-25 advantage with 16:13 to play. But the Valpo defense held Butler to just nine points over the next eight-minute stretch, enabling the Crusaders to crawl back into the ballgame.
The Valpo run started a minute later when sophomore Kevin Van Wijk (Hoofddorp, Netherlands/Katholieke Scholengemeenschap Hoofddorp) split a pair of free throws, followed on the next trip by a 3-pointer on the fast break by redshirt junior Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]). Two possessions later, the Crusaders took advantage of a pair of offensive rebounds, capitalizing on a baseline driving layup by Harris to close within 44-31.
Marshall nailed a jumper for Butler on its next possession, but Wood found fifth-year senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) for a layup to answer immediately. A little over a minute later, Ronald Nored converted a layup for the Bulldogs, but Harris responded with his first triple of the ballgame to cut the lead to 12 points. After a Butler miss, Harris then fed senior Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) for a 3-pointer of his own to cut the deficit to 48-39 with 11:08 to go and force a Bulldog timeout.
Nored canned a 3-pointer almost a minute later to push the Butler lead back into double figures, but Harris quickly answered with another triple to move Valpo within nine with under 10 minutes to go. Then on the Crusaders' next trip, the freshman was fouled as he unleashed another shot from behind the arc and hit all three freebies to close the gap to 51-45, the closest the game had been since 9-3 in the early stages.
Two trips later, Andrew Smith hit a layup for Butler, but again it was the freshman Harris stepping up to hit a big shot, nailing his third 3-pointer of the game to move Valpo within 53-48 with 8:08 remaining, capping a stretch where the Crusaders outscored the Bulldogs 23-9 over an eight-minute span. But Zach Hahn hit 3-pointers on the next two Butler possessions to again push the Bulldog advantage back into double figures.
Valpo would score on five possessions in a seven-possession stretch starting with 6:30 to go to remain within striking distance, but every Crusader basket was answered by points on the Bulldogs' side of the ledger as well. Wood came up with a steal and fast-break layup with 6:29 to go to move Valpo within 59-50, but Nored responded with a layup on Butler's next trip. A layup by Johnson was nullified by a runner from Shelvin Mack, and after sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) hit a 3-pointer with 3:31 remaining to move within 63-55, Mack hit a 3-pointer of his own just 21 seconds later.
Wood brought the Crusaders within nine with under two minutes to go with a layup, and after a pair of Butler free throws, Rogers got a putback basket to keep the deficit under 10 at 68-59 with 1:08 remaining. But the Crusaders would get no closer, as Butler scored six of the game's final eight points from the free throw line.
Butler jumped all over the Crusaders early, getting out to a 21-5 advantage just 9:30 into the ballgame as Valpo went 2-of-6 from the floor and 0-of-2 from the free throw line while committing seven turnovers in the opening stretch. A 3-pointer by Broekhoff broke the Bulldogs' game-opening run, and the Crusaders wouldn't let the game get out of hand, moving within 11 points at 30-19 on a layup by sophomore Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) with 4:20 left in the half. Butler scored six straight to push its lead up to 17, but back-to-back triples in the final minute by Johnson brought the Crusaders within 36-25 at the break.
Harris set a new career best and tied for team-high honors with his 14 points, which came on 4-of-5 shooting in the second half. Johnson matched the freshman with 14 points as well, but the duo were the only Crusaders in double figures for the game. Rogers paced the Crusaders with four rebounds, while Wood dished out four assists and tallied three steals.
“I was pleased with the way Jay played today,” said Drew. “We know he can shoot, but he really handled the ball well and has been playing much better defense. His play in the second half really gave us a ray of hope, getting us back to within five at one point and then down only eight with four minutes to go. But then we weren't mentally sharp and made some bad decisions with the ball. The good news is we can improve from this game and correct some of our mistakes so we can play better basketball.”
Seven Butler (10-4, 2-0 Horizon) players scored at least eight points, led by 16 points and six assists by Mack. Nored and Shawn Vanzant added 11 apiece, while Marshall scored 10 off the bench. Matt Howard led all players with eight rebounds, as the Bulldogs out-rebounded the Crusaders 31-21. Valpo shot 44.9% from the floor (22-of-49) and 45.5% (10-of-22) from behind the arc to 49.0% (25-of-51) and 35.0% (7-of-20) clips, respectively, from Butler, but the Bulldogs hit 95.0% (19-of-20) of their free throw attempts versus just 45.5% (5-of-11) for the Crusaders.
Valparaiso (10-5, 2-1 Horizon) returns to the ARC for their first home league games of the Horizon League slate on Friday, Jan. 7 as the Crusaders host Youngstown State at a special start time of 6 p.m. All the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and online at www.valpoathletics.com, which will also have a link for live stats. The game can also be seen live exclusively on ESPN3.com.