CEDAR FALLS, IOWA — Another night on the road in the Missouri Valley Conference meant another big deficit to crawl out of for the Valparaiso men’s basketball team.
The Crusaders almost did so in breathtaking fashion, nearly erasing a 23-point second half deficit before falling 81-76 in a nationally-televised contest against Northern Iowa at the McLeod Center on Saturday night.
The Panthers doubled up Valparaiso 46-23 early in the second half and led by 20 points with 4:31 left in the game. Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich made an adjustment to a five-guard lineup and the Crusaders ripped off a 17-3 lead to cut the deficit to 74-69 with 82 seconds remaining.
Northern Iowa ran the lead back up to nine points in the final minute before Markus Golder knocked down a 3-pointer and the Crusaders forced a turnover. Valparaiso had multiple looks at the rim before Max Joseph appeared to tie up Tywhon Pickford for a jump ball. The possession arrow would’ve given Valparaiso another opportunity, but Joseph was called for his fifth foul and Pickford stretched the lead to three possessions at the free throw line.
“The game wasn’t as close as the final score indicated,” Lottich said. “What has been consistent with us on the road is that we’re spotting teams too much. Our execution was poor for about 35 minutes, and with five minutes to go, we were finally the aggressive team.”
Much like road games against Indiana State and Bradley earlier in the conference season, the Crusaders (11-8, 2-4) trailed by double digits midway through the first half and the Panthers led by as many as 15 points before taking a 32-21 lead into the locker room. Valparaiso erased its deficits against the Sycamores and Braves before halftime, but couldn’t get any such luck on Saturday night.
Tywhon Pickford scored seven of his career-high 23 points to open the second half scoring. Austin Phyfe, starting in the place of leading scorer Bennett Koch, then added five quick points and the Panthers (9-9, 1-5) opened up a 23-point lead with 15:05 remaining. The deficit hovered around 20 points for much of the next 10 minutes before Lottich went with five guards and employed a full-court press that rattled Northern Iowa.
“It’s hard to win in this league like that,” Lottich said. “(Our guys) showed a lot of heart, but it’s not something we are. We don’t play five guards, we don’t trap all over the court. (Northern Iowa) was trying to run clock, they got a little tentative. I’m proud of the heart we showed in the last five minutes, but we need to talk about the first 35 minutes.”
Bakari Evelyn scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the second half and the sophomore added four steals. Markus Golder scored 13 of his 18 points after the break while adding six rebounds. Micah Bradford had a career high in assists for the third straight game with nine helpers, but the sophomore shot 4-12 from the field, missing all three 3-point shots and going 0-5 from the free throw line.
“I thought we were tentative,” Lottich said. “Our team was tentative. I thought we defended tentative, we attacked tentative. It’s been consistent on the road. It’s mental and physical toughness.”
Phyfe finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, both career bests in his first collegiate start. Joseph added 10 points and five rebounds for the Crusaders while leading scorer Tevonn Walker was limited to just six points.