VALPARAISO | Long before Bryce Drew hit “The Shot” that introduced Valparaiso University to the rest of the nation, a pair of Valparaiso High School grads combined to hit their own shot that introduced the Crusaders to the rest of the community.
Tuesday night marks the 25th anniversary of the “Miracle on Union Street,” a game in which a perceived overmatched Valparaiso team went toe-to-toe with nationally-ranked Notre Dame and edged the Irish in overtime behind the heroics of several local stars including Valpo High grads Mike Jones and Scott Anselm.
Twenty-five years later, some of the participants remembered the game like it was yesterday while others needed a quick refresher before tapping into a vault of memories that hasn’t been touched in years. Then there was Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, who continued his two-plus decade long silent act about the game by failing to respond to multiple media inquiries.
Valparaiso was drawing just a handful of fans to the Athletics-Recreation Center when energetic first-year coach Homer Drew took over the program in the fall of 1988. With a roster chocked full of local talent that included Michigan City Rogers products Curtiss Stevens and Rob Towery along with Valpo High graduates Jones, Anselm and Todd Smith, Drew began laying the foundation for what would eventually become a perennial NCAA tournament team.
The Crusaders had gone through 11 straight losing seasons and were on their way to another after a 2-6 start before the No. 19 Irish came to town for a rare televised game at the Athletics-Recreation Center. The two schools had played every year since 1967. Notre Dame entered the game having beaten Valparaiso by an average of 31.8 points over the previous five meetings.
“Most of my four years we struggled to put a couple thousand people in the seats,” Valparaiso senior Jim Ford said. “That night was the first time we filled the place. The fans were there cheering for us, but they weren’t there to see us.”
Drew resorted to whatever motivational tactics he could to prepare his new team for the game, including bringing a jacket from the 1988 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers into the locker room. Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda had given the jacket to former Valparaiso athletic director Richard Koenig, and Drew had each player touch the jacket before they went out to the floor.
“I told Homer ‘If you want to beat Notre Dame you’ve got to wear that jacket for three days straight,’” Lasorda said. “That year was unbelievable for the Dodgers. We were able to get past the Mets and then we went into Oakland, a team that had won 102 games, and we beat them in six. It was a miracle; a gift to us, and we passed that miracle gift onto Valparaiso.”
With a size disadvantage at every position, the Crusaders relied on perimeter shooting to generate offense against the Irish. Jones and Anselm combined for five 3-pointers in the first half and led Valparaiso to a 35-32 halftime lead.
“Turn the light switch off, the power is out and we’ve won the game,” Drew joked. “Our first half was good, but the second half needed to be better. We knew we hadn’t seen their best and we needed to meet that challenge.”
The Irish came out of the locker room on a 23-11 run and held a nine-point lead with 8:32 left in regulation. The Crusaders chipped away at Notre Dame’s lead, but could never get closer than three points after Anselm missed a pair of free throws with 1:04 remaining.
Star freshman LaPhonso Ellis appeared to put an exclamation point on an Irish victory with a two-handed slam moments later that extended the Valparaiso deficit to 64-59 with 30 seconds left. Just when the outcome looked bleak, the Miracle on Union Street started to take form.
Stevens gave the Crusaders their first jolt of life, banking in a 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining.
“I didn’t know what the other guys were thinking, but we were down and we need to get some shots up,” Stevens said. “Jamere Jackson and LaPhonso both jumped at me and I had no choice to arc it a little bit because it would’ve gotten blocked. Luckily it caught the backboard and banked in.”
The Irish still had the chance to ice the game, but misses at the line from Tim Singleton and Joe Frederick allowed the Crusaders one last chance at sending the game to overtime. The ball bounced out of a scrum following Frederick’s miss and Jones ended up with it while noticing Anselm sprinting toward the basket. The former Valpo High teammates played catch with the ball while getting Singleton out of position and moving up the floor on a 2-on-1 break with less than four seconds remaining. Anselm flipped the ball back to Jones and the junior hit a buzzer-beating layup that sent the game to overtime and the crowd into hysterics.
“After I made the layup, obviously the emotion of the whole building is now to the point where you really believe the momentum has swung to our side,” Jones said. “Now maybe we can take advantage of it in the overtime.”
The Crusaders fell behind by four points early in extra session, but a 3-pointer from Oregon-Davis product Scott Blum and a rebound dunk from Ford gave Valparaiso a one-point lead. Anselm atoned for some earlier misses from the foul line with two free throws to give the Crusaders a 71-68 lead late in the game. The Irish missed three opportunities to tie the game on their last possession and when the buzzer sounded, the crowd erupted onto the court.
“Coach Drew gave us two days off and I’d like to say that I was a very dedicated student-athlete, but I can remember walking home at 4:30 in the morning and people were still keeping the party going,” Smith said.
The win over Notre Dame didn’t immediately turn the Valparaiso program around. Drew would go through three seasons of single-digit wins before the Crusaders finally broke through in 1993 following another win over the Irish. What the Miracle on Union Street did was show that there was a place in the community for Valparaiso basketball.
“There was a lot of questions at one time and a lot of sentiment around campus that maybe Valparaiso shouldn’t be Division I,” then-Valparaiso director of athletics Bill Steinbrecher said. “I think that game made people realize that maybe there is a place for Valpo here.”
It’s been 25 years and the game is still a “remember where I was at moment,” for many of the Valparaiso faithful. What has made the game stand over the test of time is the community feel at the ARC when a group of players largely comprised from Northwest Indiana rose up to beat Notre Dame. The impact of the victory was felt throughout Valparaiso until another local high school star hit his own buzzer-beater 10 years later.
“All of (Anselm, Jones, Smith) family, friends, past Valpo High teammates and students could remember the three of them playing,” Drew said. “It’s a special moment for them. They grew up in Valparaiso. They were stars in high school and they brought that same focus to the university. To share a moment like that with them is still special today.”