Valparaiso played one of its best halves of the season, followed by one of its most important halves.
The Crusaders finally got their offense humming with 11 assists in the first half against Santa Clara on Monday night and then hung on for dear life in the second half as the Broncos all but erased a 17-point deficit before Valparaiso snapped its three-game losing streak with a 76-68 win in California.
Seeing their lead evaporate all the way down to three points, the Crusaders ripped off a 12-2 run late in the second half that was punctuated by a pair of 3-pointers from Joe Burton and Markus Golder. Burton led Valparaiso with 14 points while Golder added 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“We defended pretty well in the first half and they got into a rhythm in the second half,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “It got to a point where our guys just had to start making some plays and they did.”
Burton scored eight points in the first half as the Crusaders looked every bit a team that had something to prove after two crushing losses to Purdue and Northwestern and a close heartbreaker at Ball State. Valparaiso moved the ball with ease from the start, picking up 11 assists on 13 field goals in the first half.
The Crusaders finished with a season-high 21 assists along with just 14 turnovers. Monday’s game marked the first time in nearly a month that Valparaiso finished with more assists than turnovers.
“We wanted to take care of the ball and we wanted to share the ball,” Lottich said. “Honestly, when you don’t practice as much or you’re in finals week and you’re concentrating on other things, it can be hard to really take positive steps forward. We had two really good practices, practices that were harder than normal this close to a game. We wanted to challenge our guys to get better.”
Valparaiso led 39-26 at the break and stretched its lead to 49-32 with 17:16 remaining before the Broncos began chipping away. Santa Clara leading scorer KJ Feagin scored 22 of his game-high 24 points in the second half as the junior did everything he could to will his team back in the game. Henry Caruso finished with 22 points and hit a pair of free throws with 8:06 remaining to cut the deficit to 55-52.
The Crusaders answered with a layup from Max Joseph and two free throws from Bakari Evelyn before Feagin scored on a layup. The Broncos looked to pull even closer, but Henrik Jadersten missed a pair of free throws and Derrik Smits corralled a huge offensive rebound that ended with a kickout to Joe Burton for a 3-pointer to lifted the lead back to 62-54 and jump-started an 8-0 scoring run. The Broncos would never get closer than eight points the remainder of the game.
“It was a hard game to be good in for (Smits),” Lottich said. “He had two quick fouls and didn’t go back in the game in the first half. He stayed with it and he was able to come in and be huge for us. The big layup that he had, the offensive rebound and the kickout, it pushed us into a comfortable lead.”
The win was sweet revenge for Valparaiso after falling to Santa Clara in double overtime last year at the Athletics-Recreation Center. The Crusaders will wrap up their nonconference slate on Wednesday night with a road game at UC-Riverside before returning to Indiana for Christmas break. Valparaiso will open up Missouri Valley Conference play at Indiana State on Dec. 28.
The Crusaders could be back at full strength by the time they open conference play. Tevonn Walker (mono) isn’t with the team in California, but Lottich said after the game that the senior guard is progressing, and the expectation is he’ll return for conference play.