VALPARAISO — Valparaiso losing to the Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite Missouri State at the Athletics-Recreation Center wasn’t much of a surprise when it happened on Dec. 31.
Losing at home to Loyola, the current first place team, last Sunday wasn’t completely unexpected either.
Losing by double digits to Evansville on Wednesday was a completely different matter altogether.
In a battle to avoid falling to last place at the midway point of Valley play, the Crusaders saw an early lead evaporate once again and the Purple Aces used a late 12-3 run to pull away for a 75-65 win in front of a season-low crowd of 2,219 at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“There’s no doubt this isn’t easy,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “It isn’t easy on our guys, and the one thing we’ll continue to do is show up and worked. We challenged some people. There’s some sense sometimes where we come into the game and I just don’t know if we’re always locked in and engaged; if we’re always ready.”
The Crusaders (11-11, 2-7) looked ready at the start as Bakari Evelyn and Mileek McMillan knocked down a pair of early 3-pointers. A Markus Golder alley-oop dunk from Micah Bradford brought the scattered ARC faithful to their feet and Valparaiso held an 18-10 lead at the midway point of the first half.
Evansville answered with vigor as the Purple Aces ripped off a 20-3 run over the next seven minutes. Dru Smith scored 10 of his game-high 23 points during the scoring run and Evansville went into the locker room with a 38-30 advantage.
“We’ve got to be ready to play, we’ve got to be ready to come in and execute,” Lottich said. “We’ve got to be more consistent. We’re going to keep plugging away.”
The Crusaders stayed close for the beginning of the second half, getting to within 49-47 with 11:24 remaining after Tevonn Walker knocked down a 3-pointer. Walker had a chance to give Valparaiso its first lead of the half on the next possession, but the senior guard missed a 3-pointer and then Golder short-armed a perimeter coming out of a timeout. The Purple Aces capitalized, getting consecutive baskets from Smith and Valley leading scorer Ryan Taylor. Taylor then knocked down three free throws after Valparaiso senior Max Joseph was called for a technical foul.
The Purple Aces ended the night shooting 93.5 percent (29-31) from the free throw line while the Crusaders shot just 57.1 percent (12-21).
“The story of the game is just free throws,” Lottich said. “We were 12-21 and I don’t know how many of those were front ends. In a game that’s as physical as it, it’s tough to score, especially late, you’ve got to be able to step up to the line and hit free throws. We just weren’t able to do that.”
Taylor ultimately capped off a 12-3 run with a jumper to give Evansville a 61-50 lead with just over five minutes remaining. The Crusaders forced six straight empty possessions from the Purple Aces, but Valparaiso was unable to capitalize. Evansville scored its last 14 points at the free throw line as Valparaiso’s late rally fell flat.
Evelyn scored 12 of his team-high 17 points in the second half while Merrillville product Mileek McMillan had a career-high 12 points off four 3-pointers in 12 minutes. Walker finished with 14 points and six rebounds.