CHICAGO — Valparaiso shot nearly 60 percent in the second half, didn’t miss a free throw and scored 50 points. It still wasn’t enough to beat first place Loyola.
Welcome to life in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Crusaders gave the Ramblers everything they could handle at Gentile Arena on Wednesday night before falling 80-71. With the loss, Valparaiso is guaranteed to begin Arch Madness in the opening round before potentially getting a rematch with the Ramblers in the quarterfinals of next month’s conference tournament.
“I think anyone who has watched our team all year knows that we are getting better,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “I know Loyola was sweating for a large portion of the game. We have yet to win one on the road and that’s something that comes with experience.”
The Crusaders (13-15, 4-11) trailed 28-21 at the half, but used a quick spurt at the beginning of the second half, including five points from Merrillville product Mileek McMillan, to tie the game less than 90 seconds into the half. Playing like the experienced team, the Ramblers never lost the lead, despite the Crusaders tying the game on multiple occasions. Whenever Valparaiso would make a charge, one of Loyola’s upperclassmen, normally Clayton Custer, would knock down a big shot to keep the Crusaders at arm’s length.
“Custer has some stones because he was hitting some big-time shots,” Lottich said. “Tough shots with a hand in his face. He’s a good player.”
Custer led the Ramblers (22-5, 13-5) with 20 points, but it was Donte Ingram that provided the boost Loyola needed to finally knock off the upset-minded Crusaders. Jaume Sorolla scored eight of his 12 points in the second half and brought Valparaiso within 64-61 with 4:43 remaining. The sophomore big man fouled out on the next possessions and Ingram scored eight straight points for Loyola to stretch the lead back to 72-64 with 2:12 remaining.
Valparaiso was able to get the deficit back down to five points, but Ingram added four free throws in the final 49 seconds to close out the game for the Ramblers. Ingram finished with 16 points and six rebounds while Loyola big man Cameron Krutwig added 18 points and seven rebounds.
Tevonn Walker scored 11 of his team-high 18 points in the second half to lead four Valparaiso players in double figures. Sorolla and Markus Golder each had 12 points while Bakari Evelyn had 11 points.
The Ramblers missed a chance to clinch a share of the conference title on Wednesday night when Southern Illinois knocked off Missouri State in overtime. Loyola has a two-game lead with three games to play. The Ramblers are in their fifth year in the league and will finish the year with a winning record in Valley play for the first time after jumping from the Horizon League prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
“Valpo is way farther along in the process than we were,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “There’s no question it’s a huge jump. A huge jump (from the Horizon to the Valley). There’s a change in culture in programs, the atmospheres you’re playing in.”