Valparaiso led for the final 18 minutes of Saturday afternoon's game and hit all eight of its free throw attempts in the final two minutes as the Crusaders held off Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 68-62, to claim the Upper Division Championship at the 2010 Las Vegas Invitational. Senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) represented the Crusaders on the All-Tournament Team.
For the second straight game, the Crusaders' proficiency at the free throw line proved to be a key factor in victory. After hitting 24-of-29 from the charity stripe Friday afternoon, Valpo nailed 23-of-28 from the free throw line on Saturday. Fifth-year senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) and freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) led the way with perfect 6-of-6 efforts, with Harris' all coming in the game's final two minutes. It also marked the second straight day that Harris went 6-of-6 from the charity stripe.
Johnson, who was limited to just 14 minutes in Friday's game due to foul trouble and injury, came out like a house on fire Saturday, pouring in a game-high 18 points, including a pair of triples and his perfect effort from the foul line. Little, who scored 18 points in the Friday victory, capped the tournament with 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals to earn the first All-Tournament accolade of his career.
“Cory has been Mr. Courageous on the court for us with all the injuries he's dealt with already this year,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “He's so valuable for us, because you have to have an inside/outside game to be successful and Cory gives us the inside part of that game and helps our offensive spacing.”
For the first time in the last three games, the Crusaders got out to a positive start to the game, actually scoring nine of the game's first 11 points. An early basket by Johnson opened the scoring, while Little had two inside buckets and a free throw in the first five minutes. A driving layup by senior Michael Rogers (Kingston, Jamaica/Redemption [N.Y.] Christian) 5:10 into the game gave Valpo an early 9-2 edge.
The Islanders of TAMU-CC went on a 10-2 spurt over the next six minutes, though, stifling the Crusader offense by switching up their defenses and claiming a 12-11 lead with 8:53 to play in the opening stanza. That set up a back-and-forth final half of the first period, which featured six lead changes and four tied scores. Valpo extended its lead to four points on three occasions in the latter stages of the first half, the latest coming on a layup by sophomore Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) with 39 seconds remaining, but the Islanders' Terence Jones hit a 3-pointer just seconds before the halftime buzzer to cut the Crusaders' lead at the break to 27-26.
Valpo scored on four of its first five possessions of the second half, including back-to-back 3-pointers by Johnson and Little which gave the Crusaders the lead for good. Leading by just three points at 39-36 with 13:38 to play, the Crusaders got five straight points from Rogers, the last three on a 3-point play which extended the lead to 44-36. The lead reached as many as ten points on a pair of free throws by Kenney at the 10:41 mark, and an acrobatic 3-point play by the sophomore with 8:43 remaining kept the lead at 53-44 in the Crusaders' favor.
“I thought Mike gave us a big lift while Cory was out today,” said Drew. “His defense was really aggressive and he made a couple of big moves to the basket.”
The Islanders scored the next six points, but a driving layup by Buggs with 6:44 left made it a five-point game again. The Crusaders still led by six points with 4:36 to play before TAMU-CC scored the next five points over a two-minute stretch to get back within 58-57. But right after the second of the Islanders' two free throws, sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) unleashed a deep inbounds pass on a set play to Kenney, who dunked it home to push the lead back to three points.
Then it was the free throw shooting that stepped up, as Harris hit four straight to give Valpo a 64-57 lead with 1:32 to play. Kenney then came up with a huge steal on the defensive end, and Broekhoff calmly sank a pair of freebies with 45 seconds to play to extend the lead to nine. The Islanders scored back-to-back baskets within a 15 second span after a Crusader miscue to crawl back within four points, but Harris nailed the final two free throws of the game to cinch the victory for Valpo.
“You have to look at the free throw line for our success today,” said Drew. “Jay was huge down the stretch, and Ryan and Matt hit some big free throws as well to keep our lead at two or three possessions. I thought our defense was really good today as well, considering how quick and athletic Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is.”
Johnson and Little were the only two Crusaders to finish in double figures, but Kenney added nine points off the bench as Valpo shot 47.7% (21-of-44) from the floor. Broekhoff dished out a team-best four assists. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (2-5) was led by 14 points and nine rebounds from Demond Watt and 13 points by Justin Reynolds. The Islanders out-rebounded Valpo by a 38-28 spread, but also committed 16 turnovers against just 11 by the Crusaders.
Valparaiso (4-2) opens Horizon League play Thursday at UIC. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m., and all the action can be heard on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and online at www.valpoathletics.com, which will also have links for live stats and live video through the Horizon League Network.