Four players finished in double figures as the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team continued its strong start to the season by besting North Dakota 74-60 on Sunday afternoon at the Athletics-Recreation Center. Junior Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) and freshman Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place) both had career performances, while sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) finished one rebound away from his second straight double-double.
How It Happened
- Valpo scuffled to score out of the gate, and found itself down 11-5 six minutes into the game. The Brown & Gold scored the next nine points to take a 14-11 lead after Freeman-Liberty knocked one in to overcome an early cold spell.
- Another first-half Valpo run, this time 8-0, helped the hosts build the lead up to double figures for the first time in the game at 25-15 with 4:43 left in the first half. A John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) layup capped the spurt, which also saw Krikke and Freeman-Liberty connect on baskets.
- The Fighting Hawks pulled back within three with 1:40 to go in the half, but Valpo scored the final six points of the opening period to send the team into the break up nine at 33-24.
- Krikke was a factor throughout the first half and already had seven points on 3-of-5 shooting after entering the game with three points total through the first three games of the season. Freeman-Liberty had 11 by the break while Valpo owned a 12-5 edge in the turnover department.
- Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) swished a triple on the first possession of the second half to give Valpo its largest lead of the game at 36-24. North Dakota briefly cut the deficit back down to eight, but when a McMillan jumper made it a 40-30 game with 18 minutes to go in the second half, Valpo would lead by double figures from that point forward.
- Five straight points capped by a Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) basket with 13:22 left in the half boosted the lead to 17. The Fighting Hawks fought back to within 10 on several occasions including 62-52 with 4:05 to play, but they would get no closer. A triple by Nick Robinson (Chicago, Ill. / Kenwood [Saint Joseph’s]) at the four-minute mark sent the lead back to 13 and helped seal the deal.
Inside the Game
- Freeman-Liberty has scored 19 points or more in all four games this season, including 21 on Sunday. He added to his stat line with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals. The assist output marked a career high. He had previously reached four assists on six occasions.
- McMillan enjoyed a career performance for the second straight game. He followed his 13-point output from Tuesday at SIUE with 16 on 6-of-12 shooting in Sunday’s triumph.
- Sackey led the team in assists for the fourth straight game, enjoying his third game with three assists or more.
- Clay captured career highs in assists and rebounds with four of each.
- Krikke didn’t have a made field goal over the first three games of his career, but he knocked in five on 11 attempts on Sunday. The freshman finished with 11 points.
- The fourth Valpo player in double figures was Robinson, who did so on 4-of-7 shooting for 10 points while grabbing seven rebounds.
- Kiser equaled a career high with nine points, a mark he also reached on Nov. 9 at Saint Louis.
- Valpo won the rebounding battle 38-33, had 20 assists against 11 turnovers and forced 20 North Dakota (1-2) giveaways including 11 steals, matching a season high. Valpo has accumulated 11 steals in each home game so far this season.
- This marks the fifth time in the last six years Valpo has started the season 3-1 or better.
Thoughts from Head Coach Matt Lottich
“I’m very pleased with the effort. North Dakota had a really good game plan coming in. They let us run our action and then gambled defensively. It was the first time all year that an opponent had done that. It took us a bit to adjust, but we got going in the second half. It was good to see Ben play well. He hadn’t done what he did today yet in a game, but he’s been doing it every day in practice. Mileek was out there less than 100 percent, but gave it his all and had another career high. Javon let the game come to him again and hit big shots. Everyone who played contributed to the win. Eron Gordon gave us some good minutes. We beat a good team, and I’m proud of the effort.”
“With the freshmen we have, the talent is there, there’s no doubt about it. Sometimes, executing our scheme is the concern, but Ben did a great job of that today. Defensively, he was locked in and offensively, he was very locked in. There are always moments where there is a little more clarity for freshmen, and Ben had those moments today. Every day in practice, Ben has been tough to stop offensively and done a great job defensively. I’m really proud of his work. Our freshmen have to contribute a little more with Ryan (Fazekas) being out, and I’m extremely proud of what they did today.”
“Opportunities like the U.S. Virgin Islands trip are fun because we get to spend a lot of time together. We get to build our team chemistry and camaraderie. It’s hard to quantify what that is, but it’s probably the most important thing in basketball. Right now, our team has a lot of good vibes, good feelings and they’re playing for one another. It’s special.”
Valpo (3-1) will travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands for this week’s Paradise Jam, which begins on Friday at noon Central Time vs. Grand Canyon. The battle with the ‘Lopes will be the first of three games Valpo will play in the multi-team event, which will be broadcast on FloHoops. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.