After trailing by double figures early, fourth-seeded Valparaiso built as much as a 19-point second half lead and then held off a rally by ninth-seeded Youngstown State, eventually earning an 80-71 win in first round action of the 2011 Horizon League Men’s Basketball Championship Tuesday evening at the ARC. The Crusaders advance to play fifth-seeded Detroit in the quarterfinals Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Milwaukee.
“I was very proud of our team tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “The first game is always the hardest when it comes to the tournament. It is very difficult to beat any team three times, especially a team like Youngstown State. They’re a very quick, very dangerous team and I was proud of the way we competed.”
First Team All-League honoree Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) led the way for the Crusaders on Tuesday. Wood poured in a team-high 20 points and also made a huge impact on the boards, reaching double figures in the category for the first time in his career with 12 rebounds to also pick up his first career double-double. Wood also handed out a team-best five assists while committing just one turnover.
Both teams traded punches early on, with an 8-8 tie at the first media timeout, before the Penguins put together the game’s first run. YSU scored on seven straight possessions in the early stages of the game, with five of those possessions accounting for a 10-0 run that gave the Penguins a double-digit advantage.
The YSU lead was still 10 points at 20-10 with 12:55 to go in the half before the Crusaders countered with a 12-0 run of their own. An inside basket by sophomore Kevin Van Wijk (Hoofddorp, Netherlands/Katholieke Scholengemeenschap Hoofddorp) started the spurt, with a mid-range jumper by senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School), playing in his program-record 130th career game, cutting the Penguin edge to six.
Valpo then went behind the arc to make up the rest of the deficit a little quicker. Sophomore Matt Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville) found Little for the first of the triples, and then the sophomore was on the receiving end of a Van Wijk pass, canning a game-tying 3-pointer as the Crusaders made up the 10-point deficit in just 3:09. Two trips later, an inside basket by Kenney capped the 12-0 run and put Valpo back on top, 22-20.
The game would remain tight throughout most of the remainder of the first half, with a pair of Kendrick Perry free throws at the 4:39 mark giving YSU a 33-32 lead. The Penguins would score just two more points the remainder of the half, however, allowing Valpo to reel off a big run heading into the break. Fifth-year senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) started the run with a pair of free throws and then converted a layup on the next offensive trip to give the Crusaders a three-point lead.
Ashen Ward briefly quelled the Crusader momentum with a deep jumper, but Wood split a pair of free throws and then took the ball coast-to-coast for a layup off of a defensive rebound to make it 39-35 Valpo with 2:23 to go in the half. Van Wijk then scored inside, his fourth basket of the first half, after a YSU miss to push the lead to six points. Following another Penguin miss, freshman Jay Harris (Aurora, Ill./Oswego East) hit a stop-and-pop 3-pointer from 26 feet to cap the 12-2 half-ending run that sent the Crusaders into the locker room up 44-35.
“I loved that run at the end of the first half,” said Drew. “We played great defense, forced turnovers and hit some big shots to get the lead going into halftime.”
The momentum was still in the Crusaders’ favor out of the locker room, spearheaded by five points in the first 50 seconds of the second half by Johnson. Valpo pushed its advantage into the mid-teens thanks to 7-of-8 free throw shooting in the first three minutes of the half, and scored on nine of its first 14 second-half possessions to go ahead by as many as 19 points, doing so on a jumper in the paint by Harris with 13:14 to play.
The lead was still 19 at 65-46 just under a minute later after a fast-break layup by Little, but the Crusaders then went ice-cold from the floor, hitting just two field goals and scoring six points in all over the next nine-plus minutes. The cold spurt allowed the Penguins to chip into the lead, which they did to the tune of a 24-6 run over that stretch.
YSU got its deficit into single figures in just three minutes, and eventually got to within one possession after back-to-back 3-pointers by Blake Allen and Kendrick Perry, the latter coming with 3:38 to play. After a Valpo miss, Perry took the ball into the paint and knocked down a jumper to move YSU within 71-70 with 2:47 remaining.
But Wood stepped up at that point on the offensive end for the Crusaders. The junior posted up his defender and hit a turnaround jumper with 2:26 to go to make it a three-point game, and then after YSU split a pair of free throws, knocked down a jumper from 17 feet to give Valpo a 75-71 lead with 76 seconds to play.
“Brandon hit two big shots in the closing minutes there,” said Drew. “We have confidence in him to take those shots, and he has great confidence that he’ll make them.”
The Penguins would get no closer than four points, as the Crusaders forced them into 0-for-6 shooting in the final stretch. Valpo iced the game at the charity stripe, hitting 5-of-6 from the line in the final minute of play to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal game.
“The team really took over on defense late,” said Drew. “We got very high hands in [YSU’s] faces and allowed no good looks at 3-pointers in the final 1:30. Then we rebounded the ball well and hit free throws down the stretch. It was a good win for us, and now we move on to Friday.”
Johnson put up 15 points and five rebounds on Tuesday despite being limited to just 21 minutes due to foul trouble, while Little added 14 points as well. Valpo picked up 18 assists on its 30 baskets and committed just 12 turnovers against the Penguins while also hitting 77.3% (17-of-22) from the foul line. The Crusaders also enjoyed big advantages over YSU in points in the paint (44-30) and points off turnovers (24-4).
Damian Eargle led Youngstown State (9-21) with game highs of 21 points and five blocked shots and also pulled down nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. Perry scored 16 points, while Allen and Vytas Sulskis each chipped in 11 as well.
Valparaiso (22-10) will take on the Titans of Detroit on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. in the second quarterfinal at U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee. The game will be available live on ESPN Full Court and on the Horizon League Network, while as always, you can listen to the game live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network. Links for live audio, video and stats will be available at www.valpoathletics.com.