Cedar City, Utah – Raitis Grafs scored 19 points, Stalin Ortiz added 18 and Kikas Gomes grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds as first-place Valpo (15-8, 9-1 Mid-Con) defeated Southern Utah 69-61. The Crusaders, winners of four straight and 10 of the last 11, dominated the boards, outrebounding the Thunderbirds 52-29. The victory was Valpo’s first in the last four games played at Southern Utah.
Valpo’s defense was a major factor, limiting Southern Utah to 36 percent shooting overall. Antti Nikkila, who grabbed eight rebounds, had four of the Crusaders’ eight blocked shots. Ali Berdiel topped Valpo with eight assists.
Grafs scored seven points in the last 4:22 to help expand a narrow Valpo lead. The Crusaders led 56-55 when Grafs made a layup, was fouled and converted the free throw to increase the lead to 59-55 with 4:22 left. Southern Utah cut its deficit to one point again (60-59) with 3:25 remaining when the 6’11” Grafs made a short jumper and two free throws to extend the lead to 64-59 at the 2:17 mark. The Thunderbirds pulled within three (64-61), but Greg Tonagel made five of six free throws in the final 44 seconds to seal the win.
After trailing 33-30 at halftime, Valpo began the second half with a 7-0 run to take a 37-33 lead with16:27 remaining. Grafs made a basket and two free throws, Gomes drained a short jumper and Berdiel converted a free throw during the stretch.
Two layups each by Nikkila and Ortiz helped Valpo increase its advantage to 47-39 with 10:31 left. Valpo still held an eight-point lead (50-42) at the 9:30 mark on Roberto Nieves’ 3-point basket before the Thunderbirds went on a 10-2 run to tie the game at 52-52 with 6:60 left. David Palmer, who led Southern Utah (9-14, 4-7 Mid-Con) with 11 points, made two treys and two free throws during the rally.
In the first half, Valpo led by as many as nine points before Southern Utah outscored the Crusaders 23-11 to close out the first 20 minutes. Ortiz led all scorers in the first half with 12 points.
Valpo finished shooting 40 percent (23-57) overall and made 19 of 28 free throws (68 percent). Grafs, who grabbed nine rebounds, drained all seven of his charity tosses. Gomes and Grafs each had two blocked shots. The Thunderbirds made seven-of-20 3-point attempts to Valpo’s four-of-19.
Valpo begins its final homestand of the season Thursday against Oakland at 7:05 p.m.