Another chapter in the Valparaiso-Oakland series went down to the wire Sunday afternoon at the ARC, but this time, with more on the line than perhaps any other regular season meeting in the series history for both sides, it was the Crusaders who came out on top, out-scoring the Golden Grizzlies 8-2 over a stretch of 3:30 late to pull away and eventually earn an 82-76 victory.
Oakland would hold the lead for the last time on a Jalen Hayes 3-pointer with 9:57 to play – his third triple of the game, after coming in having hit no 3-pointers on the season. Two possessions later, senior Vashil Fernandez (Kingston, Jamaica/Princeton Day [Md.] Academy) converted an inside basket to tie the game at 61-61.
After forcing a miss defensively, freshman David Skara (Zadar, Croatia/Ekonomska Skola Zadar) hit both ends of a one-and-one to give the Crusaders a two-point lead with 8:23 to play. Oakland would split two pairs of free throws to tie the game again at 63-63 with 7:14 to go, setting off a stretch where the two teams would trade blows.
Fernandez converted inside again through contact and completed the 3-point play to make it 66-63 Crusaders, but Kahlil Felder answered for Oakland with a deep jumper to cut the lead to one. Junior E. Victor Nickerson (Atlanta, Ga./Norcross [Charlotte]) responded with a driving layup as the shot clock was winding down to push the advantage back to 68-65, but the Golden Grizzlies got three chances on their next trip, with Corey Petros eventually finishing a 3-point play to tie the game at 68-68 with 5:53 to play.
Neither team would score on their next two possessions, as the deadlock endured, but finally it would be junior Darien Walker (Chicago, Ill./Simeon [John A. Logan/Arizona Western]) who broke the tie with a 3-point lead, giving Valpo a 71-68 edge into the final media timeout. Then, after forcing a turnover, the Crusaders picked up a pair of offensive rebounds off of misses, the second of which resulted in a Fernandez tip-in to make it a two-score game for the first time since early in the second half.
Another deep jump shot from Felder found the basket to bring the Golden Grizzlies back within three with 3:14 to play, and after a Crusader miss, Petros went to the line for a one-and-one for Oakland. But the Grizzlies’ senior couldn’t convert the front end, and Valpo took full advantage. Working the offense, Skara hit sophomore Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) open on the wing for a 3-point look – his first 3-point attempt of the game – and Peters drilled it, making it 76-70 Valpo with 2:27 to go.
Felder wasn’t finished for Oakland, driving for layups on back-to-back trips, but Nickerson answered one with a driving basket of his own as the Crusaders still led 78-74 with 1:33 to play following Felder’s second bucket. Valpo would miss the front end of two one-and-ones over the next 40 seconds, but Peters forced a steal on one trip and then grabbed a defensive board on the other to keep the Golden Grizzlies off the board. The sophomore was fouled after pulling down the rebound with 37 seconds to play and hit both free throws to push the lead to six points, and Oakland would get no closer the rest of the way.
Valpo exploded early in front of the home crowd on Sunday, jumping out to a 16-4 lead just over six minutes into the game as Skara dropped in seven early points. Oakland rallied, however, and while the Golden Grizzlies would never lead in the first half, they crawled back to within as few as three points. With the final possession of the first half, Walker cleaned up a miss and laid it in, giving the Crusaders a 41-35 lead at the half.
Oakland’s Nick Daniels hit a 3-pointer to open the second half, but a pair of free throws by Peters pushed the lead back to five points – the last time it would be a two-possession game until the late stages. The teams eventually traded the lead an incredible 16 times over a nine-minute stretch of the second half, until Skara’s free throws at the 8:23 mark gave Valpo the lead for good.
Valpo exhibited extreme offensive balance in Sunday’s win, as six Crusaders finished in double figures. Nickerson led the way with a career-best 16 points, going 7-of-11 from the floor, while Skara finished with 14 points off the bench. Walker scored 13 points and added five rebounds, while freshman Tevonn Walker (Montreal, Quebec/Vanier College) added 12 points as well.
Fernandez knocked down all five of his field goal attempts to finish with 11 points while also grabbing seven rebounds. Closing out the group in double figures was Peters, who despite getting off just four field goal attempts, posted 11 points and nine rebounds. Valpo finished shooting at a 57.7% clip (30-of-52) from the field Sunday, the fourth time in its last six games the Crusaders have hit at least 54% from the floor.
Oakland (12-13, 7-3 Horizon), which saw its seven-game winning streak snapped, was paced by a game-high 21 points from Hayes, who hit his first three 3-pointers of the season. Felder finished with 20 points on 8-of-18 shooting, handed out seven assists and tallied four steals, while Petros went 7-of-13 from the floor in a 16-point, 11-rebound outing.
Valparaiso (22-4, 9-2 Horizon) faces its biggest test of the year to date on Friday evening, as the Crusaders host Green Bay at the ARC at 6 p.m. in front of a live nationwide audience on ESPN2. The game against the Phoenix will also be carried, as always, on the Valpo Sports Network, with links for live audio and stats available at ValpoAthletics.com.