The Valparaiso University men’s basketball team incurred an 88-78 setback to UNI on Wednesday night at the McLeod Center in a back-and-forth game where the guests led by as many as 11. The Panthers, a team receiving votes nationally in the AP and USA Today Coaches polls, clawed back with a large run late in the first half and early in the second half en route to improving to 10-0 at home this season. A battle between the league’s top two scorers lived up to the hype, as Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) poured in 28 points and UNI’s A.J. Green finished with 29.
How It Happened
- After Valpo scored the game’s first basket, the Panthers (15-2, 4-1) went on a 10-0 run to jump out to a 10-2 lead less than four minutes into the game. By the time Green knocked in a basket at the 13:20 mark, the lead had reached double figures at 17-6.
- Then it was Valpo’s turn for its first run of the day, starting with a Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) triple at the 13-minute mark. That sparked an 11-point burst that tied the game at 17.
- A key part of that run was the play of Valpo’s bench, as head coach Matt Lottich subbed in the quartet of Zion Morgan (Chicago, Ill. / Kenwood [Wabash Valley / UNLV]), Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place), John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) and Eron Gordon (Indianapolis, Ind. / Cathedral) to join Freeman-Liberty at the under-16 media timeout, which came at the 12:47 mark. Morgan had a quick basket upon entering, and later notched a steal that led to a fastbreak layup by Krikke to level the score at 17 with 8:44 on the clock.
- Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornela) reentered the game and made a pair of key 3s, the first coming with 7:03 remaining in the half to snap a 19-all tie and the second with 5:03 to go to make it 28-21 Valpo.
- Freeman-Liberty came up with a steal and went coast-to-coast for the fastbreak dunk with 1:28 to go in the half, expanding Valpo’s lead to 11 at 41-30. Valpo had outscored the conference’s highest rated team 35-13 over an 11-minute stretch on UNI’s home floor.
- However, that’s where the Panthers made their run, starting with a pair of late-half 3s by Spencer Haldeman that trimmed the lead to six.
- Coming out of halftime, UNI flipped a switch. Green had 10 points alone in the first 2:42 of the half, and soon UNI owned a 53-42 lead thanks to a 23-1 spurt that spanned just 5:31 of game time.
- McMillan gave Valpo a key stretch, scoring five straight points to aid a 7-0 Valpo run midway through the half. His trey with 8:20 to go shrunk what had been an eight-point deficit to one at 65-64.
- But the Panthers knocked down shots down the final stretch, methodically boosting the lead back to nine by the 2:16 mark. Over the final few minutes, UNI did an effective job of clinching the victory at the free-throw line.
Inside the Game
- Freeman-Liberty had another big night, going for 28 points, eight rebounds and four steals. It marked his 18th consecutive double-figure scoring output and his 10th game of 20 points or more.
- Freeman-Liberty also eclipsed his season point total from all of last season on Wednesday night in Cedar Falls. He has now scored 377 points this year after finishing with 364 as a freshman.
- Freeman-Liberty’s eight rebounds allowed him to lead the team in that area for the first time since Nov. 25 vs. Cincinnati. It was also his highest rebounding total since that game against the Bearcats, when he had nine. In addition, this marked his fifth game this season with four steals or more.
- Krikke (13) and Sackey (10) both scored in double figures on Wednesday. It was Krikke’s fourth time in double figures this season and highest scoring output against a Division-I opponent. The Valpo freshman went 5-of-7 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point distance after entering the evening 3-of-14 from beyond the arc for the season.
- For Sackey, it marked a return to double figures for the first time since Dec. 18 at High Point and his fourth double-figure showing of the year.
- Morgan handed out five assists, equaling a personal best set on Nov. 27 vs. Trinity Christian. It was the second time he paced the team in helpers this year.
- Valpo attempted just six free throws, its third game this year with fewer than 10 free-throw attempts (all losses). UNI went 16-of-19 at the stripe. The Panthers shot 57.7 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from 3.
- Valpo had just two turnovers in the first half, but finished with 11 for the game, still winning the turnover battle 14-11.
Valpo (9-9, 2-3) will return home on Saturday night at 7 p.m. to host Indiana State at the Athletics-Recreation Center in an instate Missouri Valley Conference matchup. Tyler’s Amazing Balancing Act will perform at halftime. Tickets are available on ValpoAthletics.com. For those who cannot make it out, the game will air on The Valley on ESPN+ as part of the conference-selected package. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.