Down by 10 with two minutes to go in the first half. Playing without one starting guard, and losing another with injury for a stretch during the opening period. Given opportunities where it could have folded, the Valparaiso men’s basketball team did what it had done all season long – stepped up to the challenge.
The Crusaders scored the final two baskets of the first half to cut their halftime deficit to six points, and then dominated the second half, outscoring Green Bay 35-19 to earn a 54-44 victory and claim the 2015 Horizon League Championship – Valpo’s second league title in three years. With the win, the Crusaders return to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in the Division I era.
“We are in awe right now, but we’re blessed,” said Crusader head coach Bryce Drew. “We faced so much adversity - going back to losing our starting point guard back in the fall and then losing our second point guard two games into conference play and then losing our starting two guard last game. Our school is based on faith, and I felt our players really embraced the core values of our school in the second half. The heart of these guys, and their determination, and their togetherness is something you really try to get out of them and they make it easy. They’re a special group and I feel blessed to coach them.”
Sophomore Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, as he helped lead the Crusaders to the championship game with a 22-point effort in the semifinals. Peters struggled with his shot on Tuesday, scoring just nine points, but also grabbed four rebounds and contributed to the stellar defensive effort on the Phoenix.
Joining Peters on the All-Tournament Team were freshman David Skara (Zadar, Croatia/Ekonomska Skola Zadar) and junior E. Victor Nickerson (Atlanta, Ga./Norcross [Charlotte]). Skara nailed a pair of key first-half 3-pointers to keep the Crusaders in the game when they needed big plays offensively, and came up with a huge steal and fast-break dunk with five minutes left to make it a two-possession Crusader lead. The rookie ended the night with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Nickerson scored six of his 11 points after halftime, and they were all crucial. The junior knocked down a pair of free throws with 5:17 to play to give Valpo a 42-39 lead, followed by Skara’s steal and dunk. Nickerson then came down and got a steal of his own, pushing in transition and finishing on the fast break to push the lead to seven points. Then, with it a 48-44 ballgame and the clock approaching one minute to play with the shot clock winding down, Nickerson drove and finished inside to make it a six-point game.
Nickerson also had primary responsibility defensively for Green Bay standout Keifer Sykes and helped limit the senior to just 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting. The effort on Sykes spearheaded one of the Crusaders’ top defensive performances in recent history, as Valpo held the Phoenix to just 44 points, including just 19 in the second half. In fact, Green Bay made just one field goal in the game’s final 12 minutes and finished the night shooting just 30.2% from the field.
Skara’s two 3-pointers came during a stretch when the Crusaders were struggling offensively in the first half, and the freshman then had a floater in the lane go down to bring Valpo within 19-15 with 7:32 left in the period. Green Bay would score the next six points over a stretch of 5:32, however, as it pushed its lead to double figures and threatened to run away.
But the resilient Crusaders got a couple of big plays from junior Keith Carter (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East [Saint Louis]). First, Carter came up with a steal and fed Nickerson for a fast-break layup. Then, with the final possession of the half, Carter read a double team and hit senior Vashil Fernandez (Kingston, Jamaica/Princeton Day [Md.] Academy) with a perfect bounce pass for a dunk in the final seconds to cut the Phoenix advantage to six at the break.
With the near-capacity crowd seemingly on its feet for every defensive possession of the second half and as loud as the ARC has ever heard, the Crusaders made one run early on in the period, as Peters connected on his first 3-pointer of the game and then a driving layup from Skara brought Valpo back within 33-31 with 13:40 to play. But Green Bay had the answer that time, scoring the next six points to make it an eight-point game with 11:43 to go.
But the Valpo offense found ways to score on its next four possessions. First, it was Peters posting up and converting in the paint. Then, Horizon League Sixth Man of the Year Jubril Adekoya (Tinley Park, Ill./Andrew) did work inside, hitting a pair of layups amongst the trees to make it a two-point game. The Crusaders forced another miss defensively, and Carter took full advantage, drilling a long 3-pointer to make it 40-39 Valpo with 8:40 to play and sending the ARC into a frenzy.
There would be no scoring for over three minutes, until the Nickerson-Skara-Nickerson trio of possessions pushed the lead to seven points. Green Bay answered with five straight, as a pair of Sykes free throws brought the Phoenix within 46-44 as the clock came down under three minutes. But Peters responded with two free throws of his own and Valpo would force three Green Bay misses on the next two possessions. Nickerson’s huge driving layup at the one-minute mark served as the dagger, as the Crusaders closed out the game and the championship at the free throw line.
Carter added eight points off the bench and led the way for the Crusaders with seven rebounds and six assists in the winning effort. Fernandez grabbed five rebounds and blocked five shots as he anchored the interior defense.
Valparaiso (28-5) extended its school record for wins in a season with the victory, and will now wait for Selection Sunday to find out its opponent and destination for the 2015 NCAA Tournament.