MICHIGAN CITY | If it's Merrillville and Valparaiso in the Class 4A Michigan City Sectional championship, you know it's going to be special.
For the third year in a row, the Duneland Athletic Conference's top dogs locked up in a classic for the title, and it was Merrillville's unrelenting pressure that lifted the Pirates to a repeat.
Merrillville came up with three steals in overtime among four Valpo turnovers in the extra session, and pulled out a heart-pounding 63-56 victory.
"Their mentality was they were going to flat out shut them down," Pirates coach T.J. Lux said. "The thing as a coach I'm most proud of is they stuck together. They just hung in there. We ratcheted up the defensive intensity, turned them over, got some looks and knocked them down."
Jake's Raspopovich's finger roll put Merrillville up 58-56 with 1:24 left and the Pirates (20-3) pulled away as the Vikings (18-5) were unable to score again.
"We've got a team of 11 seniors. We didn't want this to be our last game..to go out losing," Zoran Talley said. "We know if we put our full-court pressure on teams, they can't take it. We've made our success out of that. It's our last year. We have the team to keep going."
Talley scored at least 20 points for the third night in a row, making 9-of-10 shots for 21 points, but the most important number in the game was 19. That's how many turnovers Valpo made, nine coming in the fourth quarter.
"We certainly made mistakes, but they make you make mistakes," Valpo coach Joe Otis said. "We lost some intensity to start the fourth quarter and they made us pay. If we get a shot at the end of regulation, who knows? One more basket and it's ours."
Valpo's Justin Osburn got a twisting layup to fall to tie the game at 54 with 1:45 left and it was the last points of regulation. The Vikings played for a final shot, but Raspopovich stole the ball with two seconds left. Jenkins had a 30-footer graze the front rim as time expired.
Frenzied pressure rallied the Pirates from 46-37 down to start the fourth quarter. They came up with steals on three consecutive possessions, turning them into baskets to punctuate a 14-2 run.
"That was the turning point, obviously," Lux said. "They were ready for us at the beginning, but we came out and changed up our pressure a little bit, and sped them up that way."
John Mosser exploded for 15 points, including three 3-pointers, in the third quarter to push Valpo ahead. He finished with 24 points to go with eight rebounds. Zach Meyer scored a career-high 16 points, 11 in the first quarter.
"We're not an overly talented team," Otis said. "But we've got a group of seniors who care about each other and are great leaders. I couldn't be prouder. They're overachievers."
Jenkins added a dozen points for Merrillville despite continued free throw woes (1 of 5) and came up with five of the Pirates' 14 steals. Jamard Owens notched 10 points. Raspopovich had five of his nine points in OT.
"Jake made plays like a Division I point guard should make," Lux said. "Big-time players make big plays in big-time situations and Zoran played like the guy we know he is."