Leading from start to finish, Valparaiso posted one of the biggest wins in school history on Saturday evening, defeating Florida State 80-74 to win the Coors Rocky Mountain Invitational in Fort Collins, Colo.
“We had two games in the tournament where we played well defensive,” head coach Keith Freeman said after the victory, the 375th of his career. “We had our seniors step up big tonight. This has to rank as one of the top five wins in program history.”
Agnieszka Kulaga (Tarnow, Poland/I Liceum Ogolnoksztalcace H.S.), the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, scored a game-high 22 points, including 11-of-12 from the free throw line while playing all 40 minutes against the Seminoles, who were on the cusp of the top-25 this week, checking in at 26th and 29th in the two major polls.
Lauren Kenney (Mooresville, Ind./Mooresville H.S.) set a new Valpo school record, making all 13 of her free throw attempts on the way to 17 points while also grabbing eight boards. As a team, Valpo made 35-of-42 free throw attempts on the night.
“It was great for our team to come out and shoot like we did at the line,” added Freeman. “We had been in a slump coming into tonight and that was definitely a difference in the game.”
Valpo started the game strong, taking the lead from an opening three-pointer by Aimee Litka (South Bend, Ind./Saint Joseph’s H.S.). Another Litka triple pushed the lead to four, 10-6, at the 16:02 mark.
A back door lay-up by Litka at the 12:50 mark gave Valpo a 16-11 advantage, forced the Seminoles to take a time out.
A 20-4 run Valpo run, keyed by making its first 17 straight from the free throw line for the game, gave the Crusaders a 38-19 lead with 4:19 to play following Whitney Farris’ (Kokomo, Ind./Kokomo H.S.) old-fashioned three-point play.
Florida State went on a 7-0 run to close within 12 late in the half, but Farris’ acrobatic shot from 17 feet in traffic at the halftime buzzer gave the Crusaders a 44-30 lead over Florida State at the break.
Litka had 12 in the first half while Launa Hochstetler (Berlin, Ohio/Hiland H.S.) and Kenney each had eight, with Kenney also grabbing six rebounds.
Valpo was 19-of-21 from the charity stripe in the first half and shot 45.8% from the field. Both teams committed seven turnovers, and the Crusaders held an 18-16 advantage on the boards over the athletic Seminoles in the first 20 minutes.
The Seminoles came out the second half scoring eight of the first 10 points to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since 27-19 with 6:33 to play in the first half.
A three-pointer by Tanae Davis-Cain brought Florida State within 48-43 at the 14:48 mark, but a pull up jumper by Hochstetler and a triple by Kulaga pushed the lead back to 10.
Florida State again fought back with a 6-0 run to cut the Valpo advantage to just four, 55-51 at the 10:37 mark. The lead eventually was reduced to three, 59-56, after Mara Freshour’s triple at the 7:35 mark.
Kenney responded for Valpo immediately with a three-point play underneath. That would be the last Crusader field goal for the next three-and-a-half minutes, but Kenney made a couple of free throws, as did Litka to extend the lead back to eight, 66-58.
A fast break lay-up by Kulaga and a triple by Litka gave Valpo a little breathing room 71-61 with just under three minutes to play. A 17-foot jumper by Kulaga with 1:48 to play kept the lead at 10, and Valpo made 7-of-8 free throws in the final minute to capture its first in-season tournament title in the Division I era, and the first for the school since the Lady Redmen Classic hosted by Carthage during the 1985-1986 season.
Valpo also opens the season 3-1 for just the third time in school history, and the first since the 1983-1984 campaign.
Litka, who also was named to the All-Tournament Team, finished the game with 20 points, including four three-pointers in 38 minutes of action. Hochstetler also tallied double figures for the first time this season with 12 points for the Brown and Gold.
Valpo shot 43.5% for the game and turned the ball over a season-low 13 times.
“I really liked our focus and approach as a team tonight,” Freeman added. “We did a good job holding onto the basketball against an athletic and long Florida State team.”
Mara Freshour led five Seminoles in double figures with 16 points off of the bench, including making 4-of-8 from three-point range. Jacinta Monroe added 13 points and eight boards for Florida State (5-2).
The Seminoles shot just 39.7% from the floor and committed 15 turnovers, but finished the game with a 43-29 advantage on the boards, including 18 offensive rebounds which turned into 22 second chance points.
Valparaiso (3-1) will wrap up its four-game trip away from home next Saturday afternoon in Denton, Texas as the Crusaders battle North Texas. Tip-off is set for 4:30 p.m. with all the action carried live on WVUR (95.1-FM, Valparaiso) and online at www.valpoathletics.com.
Game Notes: This was the first meeting ever between Valpo and Florida State … Valpo is now 2-2 all-time against current Atlantic Coast Conference teams, having defeated Wake Forest at home during the 2001-2002 season … Litka moved into a tie for ninth place all-time at Valpo with Amy Cole (1987-1991) with 119 career three-pointers … her double figure game was her 31st in the last 34 contests … Kenney’s 13 free throws tie her for fifth most makes in a game in school history … her record-setting percentage was one more than Lisa Diefenthaler’s 12-for-12 night in 1994 against Western Illinois … Valpo’s 35 free throw makes as a team tie for the second most in school history … the 42 attempts tie for fifth on the team’s single game lists … Freeman now has 375 wins in 590 games in his career, including 246 victories at Valpo … Kulaga’s 22 points matched her season average, which leads the Horizon League … Kulaga and Litka were joined on the All-Tournament Team by Monroe of Florida State, Amber Guffey of Murray State, and Bonnie Barbee of Colorado State … Murray State defeated the host Rams 75-70 in the consolation game.