The Valparaiso University men’s basketball team looked to complete a comeback late at a venue where very few visiting teams walk out with victories Monday night in Nashville, Tenn., but the Crusaders were unable to get a potential game-tying shot to drop late as Valpo fell 85-81 to Belmont.
Big runs at the start of each half put Valpo into holes against a Belmont team which has won 71 of its last 75 home games, with the Bruins scoring 11 straight points early in the second half after the Crusaders had momentarily evened things up to go up 47-36. Valpo pulled back to within 49-43 with 11:46 to play on a triple by sophomore Tevonn Walker (Montreal,, Quebec/Vanier College), but Belmont answered with eight of the next 10 points to push its advantage to 57-45 at the 8:46 mark.
But after the teams traded baskets, Valpo came out of the under-eight media timeout with its smallest lineup of the year, relatively speaking. Alec Peters (Washington, Ill./Washington) and David Skara (Zadar, Croatia/Ekonomska Skola Zadar) manned the frontcourt slots, while Keith Carter (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East [Saint Louis]) and Shane Hammink (Millingen aan de Rijn, Netherlands/Oakley College [LSU]) were in the backcourt, along with a split of Darien Walker (Chicago, Ill./Simeon [John A. Logan/Arizona Western]) and Tevonn Walker.
That small lineup would key the Crusaders’ comeback effort over the next few minutes. A triple by Peters and baskets from Skara and Hammink finished off Valpo’s first three possessions out of the media timeout, but two hoops and a free throw by Belmont’s Evan Bradds meant Valpo was only able to shave two points off the deficit on those three trips.
The Crusaders cut another point off the deficit with three free throws, answered by a Belmont basket, as the clock ticked under five minutes with Valpo trailing 66-57. The 3-pointer would make it a game once again, though, as first Skara and then Carter connected from deep to make it a one-possession game at 66-63 with 4:30 to go.
Trading points then became the order of the day, as Belmont scored on each of its next three possessions, while Valpo was in the middle of a stretch of scoring at least one point on 12 straight trips. An old-fashioned 3-point play by Bradds pushed the Belmont edge to 76-69 with 2:21 to play, but the Crusaders had one final push, closing to within four points over the next minute as Tevonn Walker hit three free throws to sandwich a forced turnover defensively.
Carter then came up with a big play, jumping a passing lane with 1:15 to play for a steal, a turnover which led to a Skara basket at the rim to make it a two-point game. Belmont hit each of its next three pairs of free throws, however, leaving Valpo trying to make up ground offensively, and while a pair of Hammink free throws and a Tevonn Walker 3-pointer – the latter coming with 20 seconds to play – made it a one-score game, the Crusaders’ effort to tie from the 3-point line inside the final 10 seconds was off the mark.
Belmont started the game strong out of the Christmas holiday, scoring the first 10 points over the opening 3:14 as Craig Bradshaw hit two early 3-pointers. The Crusader bench gave the squad a lift, though, coming in and sparking a 12-0 run – a spurt which included six points from Hammink – to gain the lead just over three minutes later. The opening period ended up featuring four tie scores and 10 lead changes, with Valpo’s largest lead coming after a Skara layup with 2:35 to play in the half to make it 29-24. But Belmont ended the half on a 10-4 spurt, including two of its six first-half triples, to take a 34-33 lead into the break.
The Crusaders ended the night with five players in double figures, led by a season-high 19 points off the bench from Hammink, who went 7-of-11 from the field in 28 minutes of action. Carter also posted a season-best with 16 points and dished out five assists, while Skara (5-6 FG, five rebounds), Peters (10 rebounds) and Tevonn Walker all finished with 13 points.
Belmont (8-6) posted the best offensive efficiency of any team against the Crusaders this season, a far cry from Valpo’s lockdown defensive win over the Bruins in early December and continuing the trend of Valpo only losing when surrendering more than one point per possession. Bradds, the nation’s leader in field goal percentage, went 10-of-13 from the floor in the second half for 24 of his game-high 26 points. Bradshaw added 21 points, while Taylor Barnette scored 16 as well. The Bruins solidified their win inside the arc in the second half after hitting six first-half triples, going 14-of-19 from 2-point range and 17-of-21 from the foul line in the final 20 minutes.
Valparaiso (10-3) moves on to Horizon League play starting Saturday afternoon, Jan. 2 as the Crusaders host UIC at the ARC at a special tip time of 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast live nationwide on American Sports Network affiliates, including locally on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and it will be Season Ticket Holder Appreciation Day at the ARC. As always, the game can be seen online at ESPN3.com and heard on WVUR (95.1 FM, Valparaiso), with links for the live video, audio and stats available via ValpoAthletics.com.