What if Mike Rogers made the layup in the closing seconds at Milwaukee on Feb. 16, 2011?
First, a refresher if you're unfamiliar with the play in question. The final possession begins at 3:23.
The Crusaders controlled their own destiny for the Horizon League championship heading up to Milwaukee in mid-February. Playing the Panthers has always been something of a grind for Valparaiso, with the two games the previous season coming down to the final possession. The midweek meeting wasn't any different.
Here was the opening sentence I wrote that evening.
"Homer Drew got the opening that he wanted; he just couldn’t get the finish he desired as Valparaiso dropped a heartbreaker to Milwaukee on Wednesday night."
The final minute of the game was one of the most intense finishes I'd ever witnessed. Brandon Wood hit a 3-pointer with 1:03 remaining to tie the game at 74-74. Tony Meier then responded with a dunk while being fouled by Erik Buggs, Meier hit the foul shot and the Panthers led 77-74 with 47 seconds left.
Wood and Matt Kenney combined to miss three 3-pointers on the next possession and the Crusaders settled for two Howard Little free throws to get within one point with 20 seconds left. The best the Crusaders could hope for was to foul Tone Boyle and hope for a 3-pointer to force overtime. After all, Boyle had been lights out all night for 28 points. Boyle promptly missed both free throws and now Valparaiso had a chance to win the game with 19 seconds left.
Wood handled the ball after the inbound, but didn't have a clear path to the lane and dished the ball to Kenney. Mike Rogers then slipped to the basket and both Milwaukee defenders stayed with Kenney. Suddenly wide open while rolling to the hoop, Rogers caught the pass from Kenney and had an easy look at a basket that would've gotten the Crusaders one step closer to their first Horizon League title.
"Brandon was definitely an option on the play, but credit Milwaukee for taking that away," former Valparaiso coach Homer Drew said earlier this month. "We got the ball to Mike and he had a great look at the basket."
Only Rogers missed the shot. The senior forward grabbed the rebound and had (if possible) a cleaner look at the basket for a second shot. The ball rolled off the front of the rim and out-of-bounds off the Crusaders. There were still three conference games yet to play, but for all intents and purposes, Valparaiso lost its chance at the Horizon League title that night in Milwaukee.
"If you play the 'What If,' if we hit that then we win and possibly go on and win conference and maybe get a chance to get back into the NCAA (tournament) earlier," Drew said. "In reality, my thought process was with Mike. What can I do to help him through this? The whole team, the whole season had fallen on his hands and I did not want that to define his whole time at Valparaiso University."
Rogers was despondent in the following days, but bounced back nicely with a pair of 3-pointers and eight points against Missouri State in the ESPN Bracketbuster contest.
"I spent a good amount of time working with Mike," Drew said. "I told him that his shot could've happened at the beginning of the game, the middle of the game and no one would've paid attention. If someone else had made a shot earlier, this shot wouldn't have been important. Mike took the shot and I've learned people who have the courage to take those kind of shots are strong people. We concentrate on rebuilding his confidence."
But what if Rogers had hit the shot?
The Crusaders would've improved to 12-3 in conference with three games to play, all against sub-.500 teams. Milwaukee would've been essentially eliminated from the title chase and the crown would've come down to Valparaiso or Cleveland State with Butler just behind.
Valparaiso dominated Missouri State in the Bracketbuster, but then went through another tough "What If?" moment the following Monday at Green Bay. Buggs scored with 24 seconds left in regulation to force overtime against the Phoenix and then Ryan Broekhoff gave Valparaiso an 80-78 lead with 33 seconds left. All the Crusaders needed was a stop to pick up the victory and keep pace with the Vikings atop the Horizon League standings.
Howard Little then delivered the most surreal 19 seconds in his career. The consummate defender attempted to take a charge 25 feet from the basket and sent Bryquis Perrine to the line for two free throws. Perrine made the first, cutting the Valpo lead to 80-79. The Green Bay guard then missed the second free throw and Little grabbed the rebound, only to fall to the ground and get called for a travel. Perrine then nailed a game-winning jumper with two seconds left, sending the Crusaders to their second straight crushing conference defeat.
Valparaiso returned home hoping to find its footing against a struggling Loyola squad that promptly delivered the Crusaders a 68-48 beatdown at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
"I think against Loyola we were maybe feeling too good about ourselves," Drew said. "Ryan was starting not to feel well and Brandon had an ankle. This is why we play sports. It doesn't matter what your record is. Loyola played its best game of the season and caught us."
The Crusaders closed out Horizon League play with a win over UIC, but the damage was done. The three straight conference losses crippled Valparaiso's chances at winning the conference and hosting the conference tournament.
Even had Rogers' shot went down, the losses at Green Bay and to Loyola would've left the Crusaders in a three-way tie with Butler and Cleveland State with the tiebreaker going to the Bulldogs. It's hard to envision Valparaiso going to Hinkle Fieldhouse and beating Butler on national television to get to the NCAA tournament.
What is interesting to ponder however is what might have been had Rogers hit the shot and the Crusaders not fallen into a tailspin. Maybe Valparaiso gets the win at Green Bay or takes care of business against Loyola and then hosts the conference tournament. Valparaiso beat Butler at the ARC earlier in the season and with the Horizon League tournament in Valparaiso, maybe the Crusaders are the ones who advance to the NCAA tournament.
If that happens, Butler certainly doesn't make the tournament and therefore wouldn't return to the national title game for the second straight season.
The Rogers miss, the Little foul/turnover and the Loyola loss all pushed the Crusaders to the CIT against Iona. Valparaiso paid a boatload of money for less than 1,500 people to show up at the ARC. If Rogers hits the shot, maybe the the tailspin never starts and the Crusaders raise a few banners. Then of course maybe Brandon Wood never transfers, but we already covered that. See you next week.