TERRE HAUTE — Valparaiso did everything it could to make a good first impression in its Missouri Valley Conference opener on Thursday night.
Everything except win.
The Crusaders erased big deficits on two different occasions against Indiana State, but couldn’t overcome a third hole late in the game as the Sycamores pulled out a 73-64 win in the conference opener for both teams at the Hulman Center.
Thursday’s game marked the second time in program history that Valparaiso has opened conference play against Indiana State. The Crusaders lost 71-59 to the Sycamores on Jan. 6, 1951, Valparaiso’s first game in the Indiana Collegiate Conference.
“There was a level of importance to this game,” Valparaiso senior Tevonn Walker said. “We wanted to make a statement. Even though we didn’t win, I think we did that. They were scared at one point, they knew we could win. If we’re in that position again, (losing) won’t happen again.”
Walker, playing for the first time since Dec. 7 after missing four games due to mono, had 15 of his 19 points in the second half. The senior did everything he could to will the Crusaders to a victory while playing in short bursts throughout the game. Walker played 25 minutes, adding five rebounds while shooting 2-10 from the 3-point line. Several of the misses came late in the game while the Crusaders were trying to erase a double-digit deficit.
“I thought Tevonn was good; he competed extremely hard,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “I wanted to get him breaks. He’s probably as close to 100 percent as he can be.”
The Crusaders (9-5, 0-1) struggled to generate offense in the early stages of the game, falling behind 16-4 at the midway point of the first half. Valparaiso was able to get within 10 points with less than five minutes to go in the half before ripping off a 15-2 run to go into the locker room with a 30-27 advantage.
“Toughness and energy,” Walker said when describing how Valparaiso was able to turn the game around.
The Sycamores (6-7, 1-0) shot nearly 70 percent in the opening minutes of the second half and took a 48-39 lead with 12:03 remaining. Just when it looked like Indiana State would coast to a victory, Walker started heating up. The senior buried a 3-pointer while getting fouled and converted the free throw before adding another 3-pointer and two more free throws sandwiched around a Bakari Evelyn jumper to tie the game at 50-50 less than three minutes later.
Valparaiso could never get over the hump and Indiana State ran its lead back up to 10 points following a 3-pointer from Brenton Scott. The Crusaders got within six points on several occasions in the final two minutes, but couldn’t pull any closer.
“I thought offensively we played good enough to win,” Lottich said. “With young guys there are opportunities to make mental mistakes and we’re doing that right now.”
Walker and Evelyn both finished with a game-high 19 points while Jordan Barnes scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half to lead the Sycamores.
Valparaiso sophomore John Kiser rolled his right ankle late in the second half and had to be assisted off the court. Kiser left the arena on crutches following the game
The Crusaders return to the Athletics-Recreation Center on Sunday afternoon for the first time in 32 days to play their Valley home opener against preseason favorite Missouri State.
“It’s not going to be ‘we’re home so everything will be back (to normal)’” Lottich said. “We also have to be able to execute and that’s more troublesome for us right now.”