Iowa City, Iowa – Valpo’s NIT game on ESPN came down to the final possession, but Iowa held on for a 62-60 victory in the opening round of the Owens Corning NIT. Stalin Ortiz led the Crusaders with 14 points and Ali Berdiel added 13. After Chauncey Leslie made a difficult jump shot with 13 seconds left to give the Hawkeyes a 61-60 lead, Ortiz’s 10-foot leaner rimmed out and went out-of-bounds off a Crusader with 3.1 seconds remaining. Valpo finished its season with a 20-11 record.
The game was a seesaw affair, particularly in the second half when the teams exchanged the lead 10 times. Iowa led by seven (36-29) with 18:13 left before Kikas Gomes scored all seven points, which included consecutive dunks, during a 7-0 Valpo run that tied the game at 36-36.
A 3-pointer by Ortiz gave the Crusaders a five-point advantage (50-45) with 10:40 left before Leslie drained a trey and Sean Sonderleiter made a layup to knot the score at 50-50 at the 9:51 mark. After a 52-52 tie, Iowa (16-13) went on a 5-0 run to take a 57-52 lead with five minutes remaining.
Raitis Grafs, Valpo’s senior center, fouled out (4:14 left) on two consecutive possessions during a 14-second span. Ortiz responded with two layups after steals and Antti Nikkila sank two free throws during a 6-0 run to help Valpo regain a one-point lead (58-57) with 3:15 left. Two free throws by Jared Reiner gave the Hawkeyes a 59-58 lead with 1:02 remaining.
Nikkila, who ignited Valpo off the bench with eight points and two blocked shots, regained a one-point lead (60-59) for Valpo after scoring off an offensive rebound with 30 seconds left. After an Iowa timeout, Leslie, who led the Hawkeyes with 15 points, drove into the lane and banked in an eight-foot jumper for the game-winning points.
The Crusaders called a timeout with 11 seconds left and Ortiz’s short jumper on the baseline hit the far rim before deflecting out-of-bounds. Iowa’s Jeff Horner was fouled on an attempted layup with .3 left. Horner sank the first of two free throws before the buzzer sounded.
In the first half, five points each by Berdiel and Ortiz propelled the Crusaders to an 11-point lead (19-8) – their largest of the game – with just under 10 minutes left. However, Iowa went on a 19-8 run to tie the game at 27-27 with three minutes left before intermission. Iowa led 32-29 at halftime.
Valpo shot 46 percent overall (25-54), while Iowa finished shooting 50 percent (24-48). The Hawkeyes made 10 of 16 free throws compared to the Crusaders’ 7 of 13. Valpo committed just nine turnovers, while Iowa had 17 miscues.
Gomes and Grafs added nine points each and Grafs topped the Crusaders with five rebounds. Gomes led Valpo with four assists and Ortiz had a game-high four steals.
Iowa outrebounded Valpo 34-26. Reiner tallied a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Sonderleiter and Brody Boyd added 11 points each for Iowa. Horner had a game-high seven assists and grabbed seven rebounds.
The game marked Valpo’s first-ever appearance in the NIT during the school’s Division I era (1976-present). The appearance on the ESPN flagship was also a first for Valpo.