From an early deficit to large runs to late drama, the Valparaiso University men’s basketball season opener seemingly had it all.
And when the dust settled following a thrilling affair with Mid-American Conference West Division preseason favorite Toledo, head coach Matt Lottich’s team found itself 1-0 after a heart-stopping 79-77 victory. The program’s signature player hit a signature shot as sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) drained an off-balance 15-footer from the left elbow with four seconds remaining, snapping a 77-all tie and sending the Athletics-Recreation Center into a frenzy.
How It Happened
- The Rockets (0-1) dominated the game’s early stages, starting the contest with a nine-point run. The fans in the Valpo chairbacks didn’t take their seats until over two and a half minutes had elapsed, when a basket by Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Marquette Catholic [Providence]) stemmed the tide.
- Valpo trimmed the lead to 11-7, but Toledo went on its second big run of the game – this time a 10-0 spurt – to build the advantage to 21-7 with 13:28 to go in the first half.
- Fazekas and Freeman-Liberty combined for the team’s first 17 points of the game until Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) tallied his first career points with 8:39 to go in the half to make it 27-19 Toledo.
- Sophomore Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) spurred a key 9-0 run that helped Valpo climb back into the game. Sackey scored the first five points of a spurt that shrank the deficit from 10 to one by the 5:39 mark. Freeman-Liberty’s jumper cut it to one, but Toledo built the edge back up to six with 4:25 to go in the half.
- A half of runs ended with one for the Brown & Gold, as the hosts scored the final nine points before the break to turn a 35-30 deficit with 2:55 to play into a 39-35 lead as the teams hit the locker rooms. Freshman Emil Freese-Vilien (Copenhagen, Denmark / Falkonergardens Gymnasium) accounted for the final two baskets of the half.
- The lead fluctuated between four and six for the first five minute of the second half and finally reached eight when Freeman-Liberty swiped a steal and dunked it home on a fastbreak to make it 49-41 with 15:13 to play.
- A 7-0 run by the Rockets allowed them to tie the game at 51 with 12:12 left. The seesaw battle continued as Valpo responded by scoring the next eight points, including a key triple by Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville). The lead ranged from five to nine for most the game’s duration, until the Rockets pulled to within three with 31 seconds left.
- After a Freeman-Liberty fastbreak dunk made it 77-72 with 30 seconds to go, Toledo scored the next five to create the 77-77 deadlock with 13 seconds to play. That marked the first time Valpo didn’t own the lead in the game in over 12 minutes. It also set up the aforementioned heroics by Freeman-Liberty, which came off a McMillan screen to send the crowd into jubilation.
Inside the Game
- Valpo was led in scoring by Fazekas, who wasted no time in surpassing his previous career high of 22 points, set on Dec. 8, 2018 at George Washington. He started his season with a 23-point effort that came on 7-of-16 shooting, 4-of-10 from 3-point range and 5-of-6 from the foul line. He also hauled in four rebounds.
- Freeman-Liberty had five boards and two steals to go along with his 19-point performance. Senior John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) squeezed eight rebounds to lead the team and finish one shy of a career high.
- Sackey led the squad in the assist department with eight, establishing a personal watermark. His previous best was six, reached three times during his rookie campaign including most recently on Feb. 5, 2019.
- Valpo won the battle on the boards 40-31 and the turnover battle 20-14. The 18 offensive rebounds helped atone for being slightly outshot by Toledo 49.1 percent to 43.7 percent. Valpo scored 30 points off turnovers to Toledo’s 12.
- Erasing a 14-point deficit to win was Valpo’s biggest comeback since Nov. 12, 2016, when the team trailed by 16 and beat Trinity Christian. Tuesday marked Valpo’s largest comeback against a Division-I opponent since Jan. 17, 2013, when the team came from 22 down to beat Detroit Mercy 89-88.
- The season-opening win came against a Toledo team that has won 48 games over the last two seasons including a 25-8 campaign a year ago. The team was picked to win the MAC West after doing so each of the last two years. The Rockets returned a pair of preseason all-conference selections and three starters from a team that reached the NIT in 2018-19. Toledo was ranked 23rd in the collegeinsiders.com Preseason Mid-Major Top 25.
- Valpo has won 15 consecutive home openers.
Thoughts from Head Coach Matt Lottich
“Obviously, Toledo is a really talented team. They showed their resiliency tonight, and they showed their talent with the way they jumped on us to start the game. We’ve proved to be resilient and competitive in our exhibition games and again tonight. We looked nervous to start the game, and it took us a little bit to get our competitive spirit back. We controlled most of the game, but then they got right back in it. During the last timeout, I just said: “Throw the shot in.” I didn’t know who was going to shoot it, but Javon got a good look and made it. I was really impressed with the way our defense played at the end because there were still four seconds left. Daniel picked up the ball and didn’t let them get a 3 off. It was a great win.”
“There is an emotional component to competing, and our group of players does a better job than I do of not letting the highs and lows affect them much. Even when we were getting drilled at the beginning, the conversation in the huddles was the same as when we were playing really well. That’s why we’re able to do it. We don’t point fingers, and we move on to the next play. We played a lot of guys tonight, and everyone contributed. It was a team effort. I’m proud that our heads seem to stay level no matter what the situation.”
“Emil has been putting in hard work every single day. It’s not a surprise. You see the baskets, but I see the defense. I see him not messing up rotations and taking the challenge of guarding a heck of a player – their center – and doing a great job on him. Everyone has confidence in him, from the coaching staff to the players. It was great to see him play well.”
Valpo (1-0) will hit the road for the first time this season for a Saturday evening affair at Saint Louis. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on FOX Sports Midwest with the hometown radio call available on 95.1 FM Valparaiso WVUR. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.