The Valparaiso University men’s basketball program’s bright future was on full display on the Missouri Valley Conference’s biggest stage as the team’s top two scorers were freshmen in Thursday’s Arch Madness opening-round game at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Rookies Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) and Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) combined to score 26 points, helping seventh-seeded Valpo find a way to win the game, topping 10th-seeded Evansville 58-55. In the process, the Brown & Gold punched their ticket to Friday’s quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Loyola.
How It Happened
- Evansville took a brief 12-10 lead after a second-chance triple with 14:15 remaining in the first half, but Valpo scored the next nine points. A pullup jumper by Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Marquette Catholic [Providence]) capped the run and made it 19-12 with 11:28 to go in the half.
- Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) was up to his usual tricks, turning a steal into a score with a fastbreak basket that made it 23-15. A jumper by Freeman-Liberty on a dish from Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada [Thornlea]) allowed Valpo to establish its first double-figure lead of the game at 29-18 with 4:38 to go until halftime.
- The Purple Aces scored six straight to pull to within five, and the Valpo lead stood at six at halftime at 31-25.
- The first half saw Valpo convert 14-of-23 2-point attempts, but go 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. Valpo outscored Evansville on points in the paint 22-10 while also holding UE to 16.7 percent from distance. Clay knocked down four of his five first-half shots to pace the team with nine points in the opening 20 minutes.
- Valpo extended the lead to eight over the first 2:16 of the second half, but the Aces scored seven straight points to pull within one at 37-36 with 14:11 remaining. Krikke ended the run with a key dunk on an assist from Fazekas.
- Jawaun Newton knocked down a jumper with 11:38 on the clock, allowing Evansville to take its first lead of the second half.
- Eron Gordon hit a big shot with 7:46 to go, knocking down a jumper to put Valpo back on top 47-46. Clay and Sackey also connected on key shots, helping Valpo hold a 53-50 lead with 4:19 to go.
- Neither team scored again until the final 55 seconds of the game, when K.J. Riley’s layup cut the margin to one. Riley had a chance to complete a 3-point play and tie the game at the stripe, but he misfired and John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) pulled down the rebound.
- On the other end of the court, Clay created his own 3-point play opportunity, and took full advantage. That crucial hoop-and-harm came with 31 seconds to go and made it 56-52 Valpo. The Aces knocked down a pair of free throws to pull within two at 56-54 with 26 seconds to go, then Valpo missed the front end of a one-and-one and the door stayed open for UE.
- The Purple Aces (9-23) had another chance to tie the game at the foul line with nine seconds left, but missed the second of two shots and the score stayed 56-55 Valpo. Freeman-Liberty yanked down the rebound off the free-throw miss, then heaved it ahead to Kiser, who finished with a dunk to make it 58-55 with four seconds to go. Valpo swarmed the 3-point arc, and Clay blocked the potential game-tying shot to help the Brown & Gold punch their ticket to Friday.
Inside the Game
- Less than two weeks removed from setting the Missouri Valley Conference record for 3-pointers in a game with 18 on Feb. 22 vs. Bradley, Valpo didn’t hit a trey in the victory. The team snapped a 298-game streak of made 3s, failing to connect from distance for the first time since Nov. 18, 2011. Valpo went 0-for-14 in that game, a 62-59 win over Akron. Valpo went 0-for-10 in Thursday’s contest. Strangely enough, over its last 300 games, Valpo is 2-0 when failing to hit a 3-pointer.
- Valpo became the first team to fail to hit a 3-pointer in an MVC Tournament game since Southern Illinois went 0-for-6 in a 1994 game against Missouri State.
- Clay led the team with 16 points while sharing the rebounding team lead with Freeman-Liberty with seven apiece. Krikke’s 10 points came on 4-of-5 shooting while squeezing five rebounds.
- Clay has held or shared the team lead in scoring in three consecutive games after he did so just twice in the first 29 games of the season.
- Freeman-Liberty returned after missing the previous two games with an illness and contributed eight points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals, holding the outright team lead in both assists and steals.
- Freeman-Liberty scored in double figures in all 29 regular-season games, but his impressive streak came to an end in Thursday’s tournament opener.
- Valpo beat Evansville for the third time this season, recording a three-game sweep of a conference foe for the first time since March 7, 2015, a 60-55 Horizon League semifinal win over Cleveland State at the ARC. All three of Valpo’s victories over Evansville came by three points or fewer.
- Valpo won its first-round MVC Tournament Game for the second consecutive season and extended its season win total to 17. The three-point game was Valpo’s closest Arch Madness contest in the three years in the league.
- This was Valpo’s eighth game of the year decided by three points or fewer as Valpo bolstered its record to 5-3 in such contests.
- Valpo improved to just 4-26 under Matt Lottich when scoring fewer than 60 points. Two of the victories have come this season as Valpo beat Southern Illinois 55-38 on Feb. 12.
Seventh-seeded Valpo (17-15) will take on second-seeded Loyola on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The game will be available on the MVC TV Network including FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports Indiana, and FOX Sports Kansas City. In the Chicago and Northwest Indiana TV market, the game will not be blacked out on ESPN+ because NBC Sports Chicago will air the game on tape delay only. Links to live video, audio and stats for Friday’s MVC quarterfinal are available on ValpoAthletics.com.