The Valparaiso men’s basketball team shrugged off the fact it faced its first halftime deficit in six weeks Sunday afternoon at Milwaukee, shooting 65.2% in the second half to rally from the five-point margin at the break and down the Panthers 62-55. The win was the sixth straight for the Crusaders, who improved to 24-4 overall and maintained first place in the Horizon League standings at 11-2, and snapped Milwaukee’s five-game home winning streak.
Valpo struggled offensively in the first 20 minutes, shooting just 27.6% from the floor and scoring just seven points in the first 12-plus minutes of the game. The Crusaders started to heat up in the late stages of the half, scoring 13 points in a six-possession stretch.
The stretch was sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers by junior Darien Walker (Chicago, Ill./Simeon [John A. Logan/Arizona Western]) and also included a triple from sophomore Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington). But Milwaukee scored 12 points over that same span to maintain its lead and extended its advantage to as many as eight points. Valpo would score the final three points of the half to close to within 28-23 at the break.
Trailing at halftime for the first time since the league opener January 2 at Oakland, the Crusaders faced an eight-point deficit early on in the second period, as Milwaukee’s JJ Panoske started the half with a 3-pointer. Following a jumper in the paint from junior E. Victor Nickerson (Atlanta, Ga./Norcross [Charlotte]), Steve McWhorter answered with a layup late in the shot clock to make it 33-25 Milwaukee with 18:41 to play.
But the Valpo defense would limit Milwaukee to just 10 points over the next 14-plus minutes, and the offense would take control, out-scoring the Panthers 26-10 over that span. Walker started the run with a 3-pointer, and then freshman Tevonn Walker (Montreal, Quebec/Vanier College) made perhaps the play of the year by a Crusader. Tevonn Walker picked the pocket of Steve McWhorter in the frontcourt and started a two-on-one break himself. As he neared the basket, faced with the 6’10” Panoske in the lane, the 6’1” Walker went right at him, going over the Panther player for a one-handed slam to cut Milwaukee’s advantage to 33-30 with 16:24 remaining.
Three times over the next four minutes, Valpo would slice the Panthers’ lead to one point. The first two times, Milwaukee responded with baskets, but the third time saw Valpo force a miss and Nickerson split a pair at the foul line on the other end, tying the game at 40-40 with 12:14 to go – the first tie since the game was two minutes old. McWhorter knocked down a 3-pointer to give Milwaukee a three-point lead two minutes later, but those would be the Panthers’ last points for over five minutes.
Freshman David Skara (Zadar, Croatia/Ekonomska Skola Zadar) came up with a couple big plays to give Valpo the lead for good, drawing a foul and hitting two free throws before following with a steal on the defensive end and hitting junior Keith Carter (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East [Saint Louis]) on the fast break, making it 44-43 Crusaders. The two squads would go nearly three minutes before scoring again, until a triple from Peters with 5:53 to play extended the lead to four points. Peters then hit Skara for a fast-break jumper to push the edge to 49-43 at the 5:31 mark, inducing a Milwaukee timeout.
A foul-line jumper from Darien Walker on the next possession capped an 11-0 run to put Valpo ahead by eight points, but Milwaukee quickly sliced the lead back down to three points at the final media timeout. The Crusaders answered on the offensive end, however, as Tevonn Walker got free on the baseline for a driving layup to extend the lead to 53-48 with 3:19 to go.
Valpo forced empty possessions on each of the Panthers’ next two trips, and following the second stop, Nickerson banked in a deep jumper from the wing to make it 55-48 with 1:21 to play. Milwaukee came down and got a 3-pointer from McWhorter to cut the lead back down to four points immediately. But with the Panthers trying to foul to get the Crusaders in the bonus, Peters found Tevonn Walker over the top on an inbounds for an easy layup, and Milwaukee would get no closer than five points the rest of the way.
Darien Walker led the Crusaders on Sunday afternoon, finishing with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including a 3-of-4 mark from behind the arc. Peters added 15 points, including four 3-pointers, and eight rebounds, while Tevonn Walker scored 12 points, came up with four steals and handed out three assists. Carter returned to action for the Crusaders for the first time in nearly six weeks, playing 12 minutes and dishing out three assists.
Milwaukee (10-17, 5-8 Horizon) was led by 14 points each from McWhorter and Matt Tiby, the latter going 7-of-8 from the foul line and grabbing eight rebounds. Panoske scored 10 points as well in the losing effort, as the Crusaders limited Milwaukee to 40.4% shooting from the floor and forced 15 turnovers which turned into 21 Valpo points.
Valparaiso (24-4, 11-2 Horizon) has nearly a week before its next game, as the Crusaders will host Wright State Saturday evening at 7:05 p.m. in the regular season home finale. It will be Senior Night at the ARC, and the Valpo Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2015 will be honored at halftime. As always, all the action can be seen live on ESPN3.com and heard live on the Valpo Sports Network, with links for live coverage available at ValpoAthletics.com.