Valparaiso rallied from a 12-point deficit to take the lead for the first time early in the second half, but Wright State responded with a 14-0 run to take back the lead for good, as the Raiders went on to defeat the Crusaders, 68-56, in the first round of the Horizon League Championship Tuesday evening in Dayton, Ohio.
“You have to credit Wright State tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “They played their trademark defense and were very physical and made scoring points difficult on us.”
Wright State wasted no time taking the early advantage, as Todd Brown knocked down a jumper and a 3-pointer in its first three possessions. A free throw by Will Graham and a triple by Troy Tabler followed, and when Cory Cooperwood took advantage of a second-chance layup 3:33 into the game, the Raiders already led 11-0.
Valpo got on the board just over four and a half minutes in when Urule Igbavboa (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) connected on a free throw, but the Crusaders would still trail by 11 at 17-6 with under nine minutes to play in the first half. A 3-pointer by Igbavboa sparked a 7-0 spurt, however, as De’Andre Haskins (Long Beach, Calif./La Lumiere [Ind.] School) canned a triple and Igbavboa added another free throw to cut the deficit to 17-13 with 5:57 to go in the half.
The Raiders scored the next five points to extend the lead back to nine points with less than four minutes remaining in the opening stanza, and scored seven more points in the half’s final four minutes. But Haskins single-handedly kept Valpo in the game at the offensive end, knocking down two 3-pointers, a long jumper and a tip-in in the final four-minute segment of the half. The freshman ended the first half with 13 points to keep the Crusaders within 29-23 at the break.
“We were a little concerned when Wright State got ahead by 11, but knew we had come back from bigger deficits this year,” said Drew. “De’Andre really did a great job in the first half as a spark off the bench, coming in and hitting some big shots for us.”
Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) got Valpo to within four points with a second-chance layup to open the second half, but three free throws put Wright State ahead by seven with 18 minutes to play. The Crusaders got another mini-run at that point, as Igbavboa found Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, Ohio/Upper Sandusky) for a 3-pointer and then Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) for a jumper to cut the lead to two. After a Wright State miss, Diebler came down and nailed another 3-pointer to give Valpo its first lead at 33-32 with 16:23 to play.
But out of a timeout, the Raiders went on an extended 14-0 run to take back the lead. Cooper Land led the way with five points during the run, while Scott Grote scored four of his team-best 19 points during the spurt. N’Gai Evans’ triple capped the four and a half minute run, extending the Wright State edge to 46-33 with 11:47 to play.
Another mini-spurt brought the Crusaders right back into the game, however. Little started it with a layup off a feed from Cameron Witt (Launceston, Tasmania, Australia/Launceston), and after a WSU turnover, Igbavboa sliced through the lane for a dunk from Diebler. Rogers and Igbavboa would each knock down a pair of free throws as well, with the latter’s bringing Valpo within 46-41 with 8:33 remaining.
That was as close as the Crusaders would get, though, as the Raiders held off Valpo down the stretch. Wright State did most of its damage in the waning minutes at the free throw line, as Todd Brown’s 3-pointer with 6:22 left was its last field goal of the game. The Raiders connected on 19-of-22 free throws in the final eight minutes to keep the Crusaders at bay.
“Wright State was just great in the last few minutes at the free throw line,” said Drew. “We just could not get back within 4-6 points, because they stepped up and knocked down two almost every time.”
Valpo was led by 14 points apiece from Diebler, who connected on four triples, and Rogers, who scored all of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes. Haskins added 13 points of his own, while Igbavboa scored nine points while also registering five rebounds and five assists.
Grote paced all players with his 19 points, going 11-of-13 at the free throw line as Wright State (19-12) shot 80.6% (25-of-31) from the charity stripe as a team. Land connected on all six of his shot attempts for 15 points, while Brown scored 16 of his own.
With the loss, the Crusaders close their season at 9-22. The loss also ends the careers of seniors Diebler and Igbavboa. Diebler closes his four-year career as Valpo’s Division I record-holder for most consecutive starts (98) and is among Valpo’s top-ten all-time in steals and top-20 in assists. Igbavboa finishes his four years as the Crusaders’ 20th-leading scorer and fifth-leading rebounder all-time.“I am so proud to have coached these two senior leaders,” said Drew on Diebler and Igbavboa. “You can see with their tears tonight how much playing basketball with the rest of these guys has meant to them. They just are great players on the court and even better leaders and people off the court. It’s been my privilege to get to be with these two men the last four years.”