ST. LOUIS — The tears were barely dry from Matt Lottich’s face as the second-year Valparaiso coach went about trying to describe what Tevonn Walker and Max Joseph have meant to the program over the last four years.
It wasn’t the conversation that Lottich wanted to be having Thursday night, but Valparaiso’s spirited comeback fell short in an 83-79 loss against Missouri State in the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at the Scottrade Center.
The loss marks the third straight year that the Crusaders have gone one-and-done in the conference tournament since moving to an exclusive neutral site. Valparaiso lost both games in Detroit at the Horizon League’s Motor City Madness before falling in Walker and Joseph’s final collegiate game at the Valley’s Arch Madness.
“It’s hard to talk at the end of the year because it’s been a pretty emotional time for our team,” Lottich said. “As I reflect on the year and really this game, it’s just hard to say goodbye to players like Max and Tevonn. We talk a little bit about what they meant and leaving your mark on a program, and they’ve absolutely done that.”
Walker did everything he could to prolong his career on Thursday night, scoring 22 of his game-high 25 points in the second half and nearly bringing Valparaiso all the way back from a 14-point deficit. The Crusaders trailed 39-33 at the half and quickly fell in a deep hole after a controversial flagrant foul on Mileek McMillan led to a five-point Missouri State possession early in the second half.
The Bears, riding the dominant play of Alize Johnson, opened up a 52-38 lead with 15:11 left in the game before Walker took over with Valparaiso’s next six points. The senior hit shots in every way imaginable but couldn’t quite get the Crusaders over the mountain.
“It hurts even more with how we played in the second half,” Walker said. “If we did that in the first half it would’ve been a completely different game.”
The Crusaders (15-17) trailed by 11 points with just over five minutes remaining when Bakari Evelyn knocked down a 3-pointer. Walker added two more free throws and Markus Golder traded 3-pointers with Jarrid Rhodes to bring Valparaiso within six points. Valparaiso looked to have all the momentum when Evelyn was fouled shooting a 3-pointer, but the 80 percent free throw shooter stepped to the line and missed all three of his free throws that could’ve cut the deficit to one possession.
“Bakari’s got a lot of confidence in himself,” Lottich said. “(Missing the free throws) is something we’ll address. I had full confidence in him going up to the line. I think it was a six-point game at that point. I thought he’ll hit all three, it will be a three-point game and we’ve just got to get a stop. It just didn’t happen.”
Evelyn kept competing, tying up Johnson on a loose ball and gaining the possession back for Valparaiso, but the Crusaders missed multiple perimeter attempts that would’ve tied the game. Rhodes and Ryan Kreklow each hit four straight free throws in the final minute to ice the game for the Bears.
Johnson was the dominant force on the court before Valparaiso’s comeback attempt. The senior had 22 points, 19 rebounds and six assists, becoming the first player in college basketball to record that stat line this season. Missouri State outrebounded Valparaiso 49-25, including 18-5 on the offensive glass. The Bears also had an 18-5 advantage in second-chance points.
“If you want to win games like this, you’ve just got to execute for 40 minutes,” Lottich said. “We’ve got to be able to match toughness, got to be able to execute, and for the first 20 minutes, we just didn’t do it.”
Lottich wouldn’t rule out a potential trip to a third-tier postseason tournament like the CBI, but he also sounded like a coach who had just finished his final game of the season.
“Tevonn and Max have really left their mark on the program, and we’ve got big voids to fill with their leadership and toughness, but we’re excited to be in the Valley,” Lottich said. “It’s been one heck of a ride. This is a very well-run event and feels like an NCAA tournament game. It’s a really cool experience for us.”