Despite matching a season-best with 13 3-pointers, Valparaiso was unable to outscore UIC on Sunday at the Athletics-Recreation Center, as the Flames scored the game’s final ten points to take an 83-76 victory in Horizon League action.
“This one really hurt for the conference standings,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “We’ve been working hard on the offensive end and it showed tonight, but we did not do a good job on team defense, and that’s my fault for not spending enough time working on that end. You have to compliment UIC as well, as they hit a lot of shots and gave us no margin for error on our offensive possessions.”
Valpo, which led by three at the break, scored the first six points of the second half to close out a 14-0 run spanning halftime, capped by a fast-break dunk from Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School), to go up 51-42 with 18 minutes to play. UIC crept back into the game, getting to within one point on a 3-point play by Rob Eppinger with 13:35 remaining, but Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, Ohio/Upper Sandusky) answered on the offensive end for Valpo with a 3-pointer.
The Flames cut it down to a one-point game again with 8:50 to play on a triple by Robo Kreps, but again the Crusaders responded, as Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) canned a pair of free throws, and following a UIC turnover, hit an open 3-pointer in the corner off a feed from Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) to push the lead back to six points.
The teams traded baskets in the paint, with Igbavboa’s layup putting the Crusaders ahead 70-64 with six and a half minutes remaining. UIC came back with seven quick points, getting four from Josh Mayo and another triple by Kreps, to go ahead for the first time in the second half, 71-70, with five minutes to play.
Neither team would score again until the 3:32 mark, when Igbavboa found the hot hand in Diebler for his fifth trifecta of the game to put the Crusaders back on top of two. The Flames got a quick layup by Kreps to knot the game up at 73, but Valpo came down on its next possession and ran a set play out of a media timeout for Diebler, who promptly canned his sixth 3-pointer to make it 76-73 Valpo with 2:40 remaining. The Crusaders played solid defense on the next possession, as the Flames could get only a long off-balance 3-point attempt by Kreps with the shot clock running down. But UIC’s hot hand drilled the shot off the glass to tie the game for the fifth time at 76-all.
“That was really the key play when Kreps banked it in,” said Drew. “We played very good defense the entire possession, and he just made a really difficult shot.”
Valpo missed a 3-pointer on its next trip, and in the scramble for the rebound, the Crusaders were called for a foul, and Kreps hit both attempts from the charity stripe to make it 78-76 UIC with 1:26 to play. A Crusader turnover gave the ball back to the Flames, and Mayo got fouled on the drive and hit both free throws to make it a four-point game with 46 seconds left. Valpo would not score the rest of the way, as UIC cemented the win in the final ticks.
UIC started the game on the right foot, scoring eight of the first ten points in the opening couple minutes. The Crusaders responded immediately with a 9-2 run of their own to set the tenor of the contest early on, as both teams shot better than 50% from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. It looked like the Flames would go into the locker room with a lead after Rob Eppinger hit a shot to put them up 38-30 with 3:40 to play in the stanza, but Valpo scored 13 of the last 15 points of the half, including back-to-back triples by Little in the final minute to make it 43-40 Crusaders at the break.
“We have done a really good job lately putting together spurts at the end of the first half, and we did it well again tonight,” said Drew. “We took a deficit and, with our lineup making good decisions on the offensive end, we were able to take a lead into the locker room.”
Valpo placed four players in double figures, led by 20 points from Igbavboa, who also paced the Crusaders with seven rebounds and tied for team-high honors with four assists. Rogers came off the bench with 19 points, while Diebler knocked down 6-of-8 from behind the arc for 18 points and Little added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists. The Crusaders were efficient on the offensive end all night long, dishing out 18 assists on 28 made shots and only committing five turnovers.
UIC (12-14, 5-11 Horizon) got 25 points apiece from Kreps and Mayo. Kreps hit 6-of-7 from behind the arc and 8-of-10 overall for his tally, while Mayo supplemented his seven field goals with an 8-of-9 effort at the stripe. Tori Boyd chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds for the Flames, who hit at a 52.9% clip from the floor for the game, including a sizzling 63.2% rate from behind the arc.
Valparaiso (7-19, 4-11 Horizon) makes its final road trip of the regular season this Wednesday, as the Crusaders travel to take on the Phoenix of Green Bay at 7 p.m. All the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WVUR, 95.1 FM, Valparaiso; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City) and online at www.valpoathletics.com. Live video and statistics will also be available through the official Crusader website.