Valparaiso and Mercer battled like two heavyweight fighters standing toe-to-toe in an epic Friday night at the ARC, but in the end, the Crusaders were unable to land the last blow, as the Bears downed Valpo in triple overtime, 117-108.
The matchup between the reigning Atlantic Sun regular season champions, who start five seniors and had already defeated Seton Hall and taken Texas to the wire this year, and the two-time reigning Horizon League regular season champions lived up to the hype, as it featured 23 lead changes and 17 ties. On Valpo’s side, seniors LaVonte Dority (Chicago, Ill./Foreman [USF]) and Bobby Capobianco (Loveland, Ohio/Loveland [Indiana]) set new career highs with 31 and 23 points, respectively, while freshman Lexus Williams (Chicago, Ill./Marist) also ended with a career-best 15 points.
It was the Crusaders who dominated much of the first half, trailing for only 41 seconds in the opening 20 minutes in extending out to a 45-33 halftime lead. The Valpo freshmen combined for 31 of its 45 first-half points, led by Williams, who surpassed his previous career high in less than 15 minutes, ending the opening stanza with 15 points.
The Crusaders still led by 12 points with 14:26 to play before the veteran Bears put together a 16-2 run over a span of just over five minutes, taking the lead on a fast-break layup by Phillip Leonard with 9:08 to go. From that point until the end of regulation, neither squad would gain more than a one-possession lead.
Coming down the home stretch of regulation, both sides battled for the edge. A 3-pointer by Bud Thomas gave Mercer a 70-68 lead with 4:17 to go, but Dority responded with a triple on the Crusaders’ next trip. Dority also answered the Bears’ next basket with an old-fashioned 3-point play which put Valpo on top, 74-72, with 2:43 to go.
Two trips later, Mercer’s Ike Nwamu registered a 3-point play of his own to return the lead to the Bears, and after a Valpo miss, Jakob Gollon scored a second-chance basket inside to give Mercer a 77-74 lead with 40 seconds to play. That just set the stage for Dority’s biggest shot of the night to that point, though, as after a miss, freshman Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) fought for the offensive board and kicked it back out to the senior, who drained a 3-pointer while being fouled with 11.9 seconds remaining.
Dority calmly drained the free throw to give Valpo a 78-77 lead, but the Crusaders put Nwamu on the foul line with 2.1 seconds to play. Nwamu made the first, but his second was long off the back iron, and Capobianco’s three-quarter court heave at the buzzer hit the front rim, sending the game to overtime.
In the first overtime period, it was Mercer with the early edge, as the Bears pushed their lead to four points a number of times. Each time, however, the Crusaders answered, with Peters finding fellow rookie Jubril Adekoya (Tinley Park, Ill./Andrew) for a basket inside with 1:36 to play to tie it at 89-all. Peters then grabbed a rebound while being fouled following a Mercer miss on the defensive end, stepped up and hit both free throws to give the Crusaders a 91-89 lead with 1:21 to go.
A second-chance basket from Thomas tied things up again with 1:08 to play, but Valpo would end up with the ball for the remainder of the first overtime period. A miss inside went out-of-bounds off of Mercer with 42 seconds remaining, but after calling a timeout to reset the offense, a drive late in the shot clock by Adekoya wouldn’t fall. The ball pin-balled out to the 3-point arc to Williams, but his triple attempt was off the mark as the game entered a second extra session tied at 91-91.
Valpo took the lead early in the second overtime on a 3-point play by Capobianco, but a pair of 3-pointers from Thomas gave Mercer a 97-96 advantage with 1:45 to go. Out of a timeout, the Crusaders ran a set play for Peters, who drilled the 3-pointer, but Mercer would score on each of its next two possessions to re-take the lead at 101-99. With the shot clock off, Dority drove and got the ball knocked away, but it went straight to Capobianco, who laid it in to tie the game at 101-101 with 17 seconds left. The Crusaders withstood two attempts by the Bears near the basket in the final seconds.
Going to a third overtime for the first time since the win in the Mid-Continent Conference championship game over Western Illinois on Mar. 7, 1995 and for just the third time in program history, Valpo scored on each of its first two possessions, as Capobianco got free inside for a layup and Dority hit two free throws, the latter giving the Crusaders a 105-103 lead with 3:52 to play. But Capobianco fouled out on the next defensive possession, and from that point, Mercer out-scored Valpo 14-3 the rest of the way, as the Crusaders went just 1-for-5 with two turnovers over the final three and a half minutes.
Beyond the aforementioned three career highs in the scoring column, Peters ended the night with 22 points, the second 20+ point scoring effort of his young career. Valpo ended the night 29-of-32 from the foul line (90.6%), with Dority leading the way with a 14-of-15 performance from the stripe.
Capobianco ripped down ten rebounds for his first career double-double to pace Valpo on the glass, while Peters was one board away from a double-double of his own with nine caroms. Dority and Peters each posted new career bests with six and five assists, respectively.
Gollon scored a career-high 37 points to lead Mercer (5-3), going 11-of-17 from the field and 12-of-13 from the foul line, and also tallied seven rebounds and seven assists. Thomas scored 23 points, including five 3-pointers and all of which came after halftime, while Nwamu added 14 points and five assists off the bench. The Crusaders limited Langston Hall to just eight points on 2-of-16 shooting, but the Bears’ point guard did hand out eight assists.
Valparaiso (4-4) turns around on Saturday to face Cincinnati Christian at 7:05 p.m. at the ARC. As always, all the action can be heard live on the Valpo Sports Radio Network and seen on the Horizon League Network. Links for the live audio and video, as well as live stats, will be available at ValpoAthletics.com.