This Valparaiso University men’s basketball game was similar to the last one in every way but the ending.
On the heels of coming from 17 down to beat Illinois State for the team’s largest comeback in seven years, Valpo roared from 19 back to send Wednesday’s game into overtime in an eventual 77-75 defeat to host Drake at the Knapp Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) carved a slice of program history as his first steal of the night was his 64th of the season, surpassing Lubos Barton’s mark from the 2000-01 campaign that had stood as the Valpo single-season record for nearly two decades.
How It Happened
- Valpo trailed by only two at 24-22 with 6:38 to go in the opening half after hanging with the Bulldogs for the first 13 minutes. The end of the half was all Drake, as the hosts scored 16 straight points and held Valpo scoreless for nearly seven minutes.
- A key play occurred with 4:29 on the clock as Freeman-Liberty picked up his second foul, causing him to spend the remainder of the half on the bench. Valpo had led 20-19 with 8:15 to go until halftime before being outscored 21-2 leading into the break.
- Freeman-Liberty’s record-breaking steal came with 13:35 remaining in the second half, and it occurred on a meaningful play in the game. The swipe led to a Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Marquette Catholic [Providence]) triple on an assist by Freeman-Liberty that cut the Drake lead to 49-38, the closest the guests had been in the second half to that point.
- The lead fluctuated between 10 and 14 during the next stretch, and Drake led 62-49 with 7:23 to play. That’s when Valpo made its big push, rattling off 11 straight points to trim a 13-point deficit to two by the 4:07 mark. Back-to-back Valpo baskets came on Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) triples, then Fazekas drained a corner 3 that made it 62-60 to cap the run.
- The two-man game featuring Freeman-Liberty and McMillan on the offensive end continued to work to perfection as Freeman-Liberty drove in and scored with 3:27 to go, then dished to McMillan for a game-tying 3 with 2:47 on the clock to make it 65-all.
- Drake scored the next four points, all at the foul line, to go up 69-65. The second set of free throws in that sequence came after Freeman-Liberty was called for his fifth foul with 1:10 to play.
- Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) made big plays on both ends of the court down the final stretch. He drove to the basket for a quick score with 58 seconds to play to cut the lead to two. After a Valpo stop, Clay drew a foul and hit both on a one-and-one, clutch free throws that tied the game at 69 with 19 seconds to play. On the other end of the court, Clay played quality defense to help force a difficult look that was off the mark, sending the game to overtime.
- Fazekas knocked down a go-ahead trey with 4:04 remaining to put Valpo ahead 72-71, the team’s first lead since 20-19 with 8:54 to go in the first half. However, McMillan fouled out on the ensuing Drake possession, leaving Valpo without both of its top scorers for the game.
- With Valpo down 75-74, Clay had a pair of free throws with 56 seconds to go in OT. He made the first but missed the second. Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place) pulled down the offensive rebound, but then Valpo turned it over. Eron Gordon (Indianapolis, Ind. / Cathedral [Seton Hall]) came up with a steal that led to a Valpo runout, but Drake’s Anthony Murphy made a huge play to block the potential go-ahead shot.
- The Bulldogs recovered the rebound off the block, earning the chance to hold for one shot at the end of OT with the game tied at 75. Roman Penn buried a midrange jumper with 3.3 seconds on the clock. Clay had a contested buzzer-beating look from 3-point distance to potentially win it, but the try rimmed out.
Inside the Game
- This was the ninth time this season that Valpo has come from double figures down to tie or take the lead. The team has come all the way back to win on four of those occasions.
- McMillan boasted a team-high 20 points while knocking down six of his eight 3-point attempts. He shattered his previous career high of 16 points set on Nov. 17 of this season against North Dakota.
- McMillan tied Eron Gordon (Dec. 18 at High Point) for the most 3-pointers made by a Valpo player in a game this season. He became the first Valpo player to convert a half a dozen 3s in a conference game since Ryan Fazekas on Jan. 5, 2019 at Missouri State.
- McMillan became just the fourth Missouri Valley Conference player to hit six or more 3s in a league game this season, joining UNI’s A.J. Green (three times), Illinois State’s Zach Copeland and Bradley’s Nate Kennell.
- Fazekas knocked down four 3s and finished with 14 points. It was the third time this season he’s drained a quartet of treys in a game.
- Freeman-Liberty finished the night with two steals and is up to a program-record 65 for the season. He also accumulated 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists, leading the team in boards and helpers. He was a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point distance. The six assists were one shy of a career high. He has scored in double figures in all 28 games this season. Freeman-Liberty surpassed the 900-point mark for his career on Wednesday and currently stands at 907.
- Clay scored 15 points to finish in double figures for the fourth time in the last seven games.
- The 34 free-throw attempts by Drake were the most by a Valpo opponent all season, surpassing 31 by Arkansas on Dec. 21. The 34 attempts by the Bulldogs were the second-most in a Valley game this season behind Drake’s 42 on Sunday against Evansville. Valpo had nine tries at the charity stripe in the game.
- This was Valpo’s 11th game of the season decided by five points or fewer as the team dropped to 6-5 in such contests. The team has seven games decided by three points or fewer (4-3) and five decided by two points or fewer.
- It was Valpo’s third overtime game of the year as the team dropped to 1-2. Its last OT affair was an 81-79 win at Evansville on Jan. 4.
Valpo (14-14, 7-8) will attempt to bounce back on Saturday as Bradley comes to town for Hall of Fame Night at the Athletics-Recreation Center. The game will tip shortly after 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available.