MERRILLVILLE | This wasn't one of your older brother's Valparaiso-Merrillville battles.
Two of Northwest Indiana's premier programs are both experiencing what some would describe politely as growing pains, and it was quite evident during Friday night's Duneland Athletic Conference matchup.
Valparaiso overcame a slow start with a 12-2 run in the second quarter and held on for dear life at the end for a 35-31 victory.
It was a welcome outcome for the Vikings (8-6, 2-2 DAC), who lost a one-pointer in overtime last week at Times No. 2 Lake Central.
"This was huge from a morale standpoint," said Valpo coach Matt Thomas, whose squad returns home tonight to face Munster. "Every DAC win is big. Every win we get, we're grateful for because we don't take anything for granted."
Valpo junior Drew Paul put the finishing touches on the victory, hitting a pair of free throws in a bonus situation with 4.2 seconds remaining. He not only was iced by a timeout from Merrillville coach T.J. Lux, but a few notes of David Bowie's "Under pressure" was played over the sound system.
"I heard it," said Paul, who swished both shots. "We just practice free throws a lot every single day. We shoot for streaks, and I made 50 in a row last week.
"It's good to get a DAC win because they're hard to come by. It was definitely a heartbreaker last week."
Paul scored six of his 11 points in the fourth quarter. Sophomore center Conner TenHove showed his versatility, stepping out to shoot a couple early 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 12 points to go along with three assists.
For Merrillville (2-10, 1-3), sophomore Jairus Stevens scored 11 points which included a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter when the Pirates rallied from a 19-12 halftime deficit. Senior forward Demetrious McKeethen added 10 points and six rebounds.
"The second quarter was really the difference," Lux said. "We had a really poor quarter, but in the third quarter our offensive efficiency was a lot better and we got some really good looks."
Both teams were content to throw the ball around the perimeter hoping to find an open man cutting to the basket. The result was painfully long possessions, often resulting in missed shots or turnovers.
A perfect example came late in the second quarter. Valpo had the ball for 1:42, missing a shot and getting the offensive rebounding before committing a turnover.
"Both teams are disciplined to take good shots," Thomas said. "A good shot requires good space, but with good defense it's hard to get space and we're not going to force anything if they are guarding us that tightly."
Valpo was more adept at the strategy, and played better defensively overall forcing 10 turnovers.
"We're progressing and we're getting better," said Lux, who starts three sophomores. "Guys are starting to understand the process. Not it's time to make plays to win games at the end."