What if Bobby Capobianco never got ejected at Detroit on Jan. 17, 2013?
There is a moment in every championship season that becomes the defining turning point when everything changed. That moment could come in the preseason. It could come because of an injury. The moment could be an uncomfortable team meeting. Once the moment occurs (and it's not necessarily immediately known that the moment has happened) everything else in the season is either viewed as before the moment or after.
For the 2012-13 Valparaiso men's basketball team, the moment came on Jan. 17. The Crusaders and Detroit entered a highly anticipated conference contest with matching 3-1 records and whichever team came out on top would have an early advantage in the Horizon League race.
The two teams had a rivalry that was growing and there was little love loss between the programs. Specifically on Valparaiso's end, the fanbase was riled up after the Titans won the 2011-12 Horizon League title at the Athletics-Recreation Center, Ray McCallum dunked on the final play of the game and Detroit fans painted "313" all over town.
The rematch featured plenty of intrigue, enough for ESPN to broadcast the game nationally to a Thursday night audience. For nearly 30 minutes, the only intrigue was whether or not Detroit would hit 100 points. The Titans came out on fire and had the Crusaders trailing by double digits less than seven minutes into the game. Nick Minnerath scored 21 of his career-high 36 points in the first half and Detroit led by 18 points at the break.
Valparaiso looked left for dead when the Crusaders were down 15 points and Doug Anderson stole the ball with 11:18 left. Anderson, one of the most electric dunkers in the country, raced to the basket and prepared for a windmill slam. With the game seemingly over, it wouldn't have surprised any for Anderson to go to the basket untouched and get himself a Top 10 moment. Instead, Bobby Capobianco sprinted down the floor and changed the game with a hard foul and an ejection. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w55X1ythAI)
The Crusaders didn't immediately get back in the game, but they stopped the bleeding before closing out the game with 12 straight points and an improbable 89-88 victory at Calihan Hall.
"Bobby's play definitely fired us up," Erik Buggs said. "Seeing that he would chase down the NCAA dunk champion, that let us know that we still have a chance, that we need to keep fighting. That play kind of woke us up. From there it just seemed like the basket opened up."
Back-to-back Matt Kenney 3-pointers cut the lead from 11 to five with under two minutes to play. Kenney finished with 12 points, all coming from beyond the arc.
"That play not only stopped their momentum, but it gave us fuel," Kenney said. "We all saw Bobby, and we knew Anderson could jump out of the gym. There wasn't anyway that Bobby was going to run him down, but then he did. I honestly don't think Bobby meant to hurt him in any way, but seeing him do that for the team, that fueled us to get Bobby's back."
The player at the center of the play -- Capobianco -- can't actually speak to the impact that his hustle play had on his teammates. The Valparaiso junior was stuck in the bowels of Calihan Hall without any way to see what was happening.
"Guys take motivation from a lot of different reasons, but we needed to make a statement, whether we're in Valpo or not, we can't allow showboating on the break," Capobianco said. "It was extremely tough for me because all I could do was hear through the walls. I had my parents texting me, but that was it."
Valparaiso's comeback victory sent the Crusaders to 4-1 and the Titans to 3-2 with plenty more conference games to be played, but none of that mattered in the locker room.
"We celebrated like we just won the Horizon League championship," Kenney said. "We got in there and Bobby was just sitting waiting for us. That win helped our team camaraderie. Everybody chipped in for that game and it brought us all closer."
"It was just one of those moments where we just really clicked," Buggs said. "We were more than a basketball team."
Valparaiso had plenty of close games throughout the season, notably against Green Bay and Wright State in the Horizon League tournament, and the players often looked back to the Detroit game as motivation and proof that they could overcome any obstacle.
"That mindset of playing, it really helped us throughout the year," Capobianco said. "We won a lot of games after that and it was proof that we could do it on the road. That was a statement win for us, such a huge morale boost."
But what if the Crusaders had lost? Valparaiso edged out Detroit by one game for the Horizon League regular-season championship. A loss at Calihan Hall (in a vacuum) would've given the Titans the title and the right to host the conference tournament. It would've been the Crusaders who were forced to play the plodding Wright State defense in the semifinals, only to have to comeback exhausted and play the athletic Titans in the title game. A Detroit regular-season title likely doesn't end with Valparaiso in the NCAA tournament and the nine-year tournament drought would've continued.
"It was one of those games, if we lose that one, you could be looking at something completely different," Buggs said.