Down 18 with nine minutes to go, the Valparaiso men’s basketball team attempted to mount a furious comeback, closing to within four points on a pair of occasions, but Cleveland State hit all its free throws down the stretch and held off the Crusaders, 80-71, Thursday night in Horizon League action in Cleveland, Ohio.
The first half saw the Crusaders commit nine turnovers, all of which were Viking steals that they converted into 16 first-half points off turnovers. Despite its trouble hanging onto the ball, Valpo shot fairly well, hitting 47.8% from the floor and 40% from behind the arc in the first half to hang within 34-30 at the break.
“You really have to credit Cleveland State,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “Their defense and quickness really bothered us, and they came up with nine steals and 16 points off those steals, which really was the big difference in the first half. At halftime, I told the team we were fortunate to be down just four at that point.”
Out of the locker room, Valpo got blitzed by the Vikings, who scored the first eight points of the second half over a 2:18 stretch to extend their advantage to 42-30. The 8-0 spurt was part of a larger 23-9 Cleveland State run over the first 11 minutes of the second half, as Norris Cole’s 3-point play with nine minutes to go pushed the Viking lead to 57-39.
“Cleveland State’s defense again came out and swarmed us into mistakes at the start of the second half,” said Drew. “Their quickness just really bothered us and they made a lot of big plays that hurt us to get us down 18.”
But the Crusaders had one giant run in them to make the game interesting once again. It started with a 12-2 spurt over the next 2:41, as five different Valpo players scored, including a 3-pointer by Tommy Kurth (Osceola, Ind./Penn) and old-fashioned 3-point plays by Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) and Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian), the latter of which cut the deficit to 59-51 with 6:19 left.
A 3-point play by Cole briefly quelled the Valpo momentum, but Wood responded with a triple to bring the Crusaders back to within eight. After CSU connected on two free throws, Brandon McPherson (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) hit a shot in the lane and then Wood stole the ball in the backcourt and dunked to make it a six-point game with 4:24 remaining.
After the Vikings split a pair, Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) got loose in the lane for a layup to bring Valpo back within five, the closest the Crusaders had been the entire second half. 25 seconds later, a McPherson triple made it 69-65, and Valpo was still within four at 71-67 with 2:38 to play after a pair of McPherson free throws. But that was as close as the Crusaders would get, as CSU connected on four straight free throws to build a gap that Valpo could not overcome.
“Our guys played well for nine minutes,” said Drew. “We really played aggressively during that stretch and made a nice run. But every time, we got close, you have to compliment Cleveland State, they hit almost all their free throws.”
McPherson paced the Crusaders with 17 points, 11 of which came in the second half, while Wood scored all 14 of his points in the final 20 minutes as well. Rogers added 12 points as Valpo finished with three players in double figures.
Cleveland State (13-12, 9-4 Horizon) was led by 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists by Cole, while Trevon Harmon scored 17 points and Jeremy Montgomery 15. The Vikings shot at a 50% clip from the field and a stellar 92.9% effort from the foul line.
Valparaiso (13-14, 8-7 Horizon) looks to get back on the winning track in its last of five games in ten days, on Saturday evening at Youngstown State. Tip is set for 6:05 p.m. CST, and as always, all the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network (WEFM, 95.9 FM, Michigan City; WAKE, 1500 AM, Valparaiso; WLPR, 89.1 FM, Lowell) and can be seen on the Horizon League Network. Valpo’s athletic website, www.valpoathletics.com, will have links for live audio, video and statistics.