PORTER TOWNSHIP | Nerves? Nonsense. Not for new Valparaiso coach Matt Thomas.
After six years coaching the junior varsity, Thomas made his varsity debut Wednesday night as the Vikings traveled to Boone Grove for their traditional season opener against the Wolves.
The basketball wasn't pretty, but Thomas looked great in a new suit while he watched his relatively young and inexperienced squad grind out a 40-27 victory.
"Suprisingly, I wasn't (nervous)," Thomas said. "I didn't feel too much of a difference once the game started, and actually before the game I was surprised at how calm I was."
In a slow-paced, foul-plagued game that lacked offensive highlights, Valparaiso sophomore Conner Tenhove led the Vikings with 11 points, eight rebounds and five steals while senior guard Justin Osburn added 10 points.
Valpo shot just 8-of-26 from the floor (30.1 percent) and held the Wolves to 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) while forcing 13 turnovers.
Osburn hit his only 3-pointer of the game with four seconds remaining in the first quarter to give the Vikings a 7-4 lead. At that point, the pace was set for a defensive struggle that featured 42 combined fouls and 40 free throws.
"We wanted it to be that way," said Boone coach Matt McKay, who fell to 3-19 against Valpo in his 22 years as Wolves coach. "We didn't want to get in a shootout with them because we didn't have the guns to match up with theirs."
The third quarter was a disaster for Boone, as the Wolves committed six turnovers and only managed one 3-pointer by Kyle Kaminski.
"The formula was working, it's just we couldn't put any points on the board," McKay said. "We went for huge, long stretches where we couldn't get the ball to go down or an opportunity from the line."
Free throws were the difference. The Vikings were 21-of-26 (80.1 percent) from the line, and Thomas was quick to point out the players are using the Valpo free throw method developed in the 1950s by Virgil Sweet and carried on through coaches Dale Ciciora, Skip Collins and Bob Punter.
"We worked very hard on installing the Valpo free throw," Thomas said. "We come in the morning and we shoot them, something I reinstalled because we did that when I played for Coach Punter."
The Vikings were 10-of-14 from the line in the fourth quarter, pulling away after Boone cut the lead to 31-23 on a pair of Isaac Mioduski free throws with 6:07 remaining.
"I was really happy with the way in the fourth quarter our guys pulled together," Thomas said. "They were talking, our guys were executing, they were knocking down free throws.
"I know it was ugly but I was most happy with our mental toughness. A lot of kids would have folded under that pressure and our guys didn't do that."