Junior guard Brandon Wood (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo [Highland C.C./Southern Illinois]) scored 24 points Saturday night, but it wasn't enough, as fourth-seeded Valparaiso fell in Horizon League Championship semifinal action at top-seeded Milwaukee, 70-63.
“You have to compliment Milwaukee tonight,” said Crusader head coach Homer Drew. “They played well and made some big plays, especially Kaylon in the second half with two 3's with hands in his face and Hill with the work he did all game long inside. I'm proud of our team, because we never quit and kept fighting even though we didn't play our best or shoot our best. We've had a good season, winning 23 games and being in the hunt for the league championship.”
The Crusaders claimed an early advantage as sophomore point guard Erik Buggs (Memphis, Tenn./Mitchell) scored three quick baskets to help Valpo lead 8-6 3:30 into the game. But Milwaukee answered with a 13-3 run, getting two 3-pointers from Tony Meier and one from Tone Boyle during the spurt to take a 19-11 lead with 11:24 to play in the first half.
Valpo quickly scored seven straight points on a triple and layup by senior Cory Johnson (Duluth, Minn./Duluth East [Iowa State]) and a fast-break bucket from senior Howard Little (Chicago, Ill./Stoneridge [Calif.] School) to slice the Panther lead down to one point. Then, trailing by three with 7:05 remaining in the half, the Crusaders reeled off eight straight points, as Wood canned a pair of 3-pointers around a short jumper by sophomore Kevin Van Wijk (Hoofddorp, Netherlands/Katholieke Scholengemeenschap Hoofddorp) to claim a 30-25 lead with 5:32 to play in the stanza.
But that would be the Crusaders' largest lead, as Milwaukee scored four straight to kick off an 11-2 run to close the half and take a 36-32 lead into halftime. The Panthers got to the free throw line eight times and converted all eight attempts in the half-closing stretch to cap a half in which they shot 11-of-13 from the charity stripe as compared to just 0-of-2 for Valpo.
Johnson and Wood scored the first two baskets of the second half to tie the game, and after a layup by Milwaukee's Anthony Hill, Wood converted another long jumper to again knot up the game at 38. But Valpo could never gain the lead outright, as Milwaukee scored the next five points to take sole possession for good.
Wood kept the Crusaders in the game in the first eight minutes of the second half, scoring 11 of Valpo's first 15 points of the half, capped by a 3-pointer with 12:29 to play that cut the Panther lead to 49-47. But Milwaukee got 3-pointers late in the shot clock from Kaylon Williams on back-to-back possessions to push their advantage quickly back up to eight points.
Trailing by nine points at 58-49 with 10:12 remaining, the Crusader defense locked down, giving up just three points to the Panthers over a stretch of nearly six minutes. But Valpo could only manage a pair of baskets and three free throws of its own over the same time span, slicing the lead down to just five points.
“We did a good job on defense, stopping them during that stretch and only holding them to three points,” said Drew. “But offensively, we just couldn't get any baskets to go down to cut into their lead.”
Down eight points with under 3:30 to go, Wood knocked down a jumper in the lane to make it a two-possession game. Then two trips later, Buggs finished a driving layup while being fouled for a chance to cut the deficit to three points. But the free throw didn't go down, and Milwaukee got a pair of offensive rebounds on its next trip before being fouled and hitting two free throws to extend its lead to 66-60 with 1:10 to play. Valpo could get no closer than six points the rest of the way.
Johnson was the only Crusader to join Wood in double figures, as the fifth-year senior scored 14 points despite playing just 19 minutes due to foul trouble. Buggs scored a season-high eight points and also handed out four assists, while sophomore Ryan Broekhoff (Frankston, Victoria, Australia/Australian Institute of Sport) pulled down a team-best eight rebounds. One day after hitting a HL Championship-record 15 3-pointers, the Crusaders were just 6-of-29 from behind the arc on the night.
Hill scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead Milwaukee (19-12), which will host Butler in the tournament title game Tuesday evening. Williams added 16 points and Meier 15 points in the winning effort. Milwaukee took advantage of 36 trips to the foul line, going 24-of-36 from the free throw stripe, while Valpo was just 5-of-9 from the line.
Valparaiso 's 23-11 record marks the most wins by a Crusader squad since the 2001-2002 team won 25 games. Valpo awaits Selection Sunday on Sunday, Mar. 13 to see if it will earn a bid to a postseason tournament. The Crusaders went to the NIT in 2002-2003, dropping a two-point decision at Iowa, and advanced to the second round of the inaugural CBI in 2007-2008, winning at Pac-10 foe Washington 72-71 before falling at Houston.
“We would welcome an opportunity to compete in the postseason,” said Drew. “We would like to reward this team for winning 23 games and finishing just one game out of the league title, and to help our team prepare for the future.”