The Valparaiso men’s basketball team shook off a body blow from Northern Iowa, the heavyweights of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Crusaders couldn’t survive the head shot.
The Panthers jumped out to an early 11-point lead on Wednesday night at the McLeod Center, only for Valparaiso to claw back to take its own 11-point lead just before the end of the first half. UNI responded with a 23-1 run, including the first 17 of the second half and held on for an 88-78 win over the Crusaders.
Northern Iowa has now won 14 straight games at home against Valparaiso, the longest active home winning streak in the Valley.
“That was a game that we could’ve won,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “We have to find a way to win. There have been numerous games this year where we just haven’t found a way to win, and some where we have. This was a bit of growing pains.”
A.J. Green led the Panthers (15-2, 4-1) with 29 points while Javon Freeman-Liberty had 28 points, eight rebounds and four steals to lead the Crusaders (9-9, 2-3).
Freeman-Liberty, who is expected to challenge Green for Valley Player of the Year honors, scored the first basket of the game, but UNI came storming back with the next 10 and took a 15-4 lead just over five minutes into the game. Valparaiso then ripped off a 21-4 run to take control and the Crusaders ultimately ran their lead up to 41-30 with 1:28 seconds left in the half.
“The intensity and the competitive spirit have been consistent all year,” Lottich said. “Coupling together a 40-minute game of staying mentally focused is something we’re still working on.”
Northern Iowa’s Spencer Haldeman buried two 3-pointers in the final 70 seconds of the half to cut Valparaiso’s lead to 42-36 at the break. The Panthers then let their star take over the game as Green scored 10 of Northern Iowa’s first 13 points of the second half. By the time Valparaiso scored its first basket of the half, the Panthers had opened up another double-digit lead.
“The two shots that Spence made, we’ve got a different basketball game if he doesn’t make those shots,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “You expect (our comeback) from an older team.”
Proving that no deficit was insurmountable, the Crusaders clawed back once again and got within one point on two separate occasions down the stretch. Green answered both times and Valparaiso could never get closer than four points the rest of the game.
“They scored 13 points (to start the second half) and we had only gotten one shot off,” Lottich said. “Then we got right back in the game. We had to slow down and weather the storm. Then when we got the game close at the end, we lost our focus again.”
Isaiah Brown had 16 points and six assists for the Panthers, while Trae Berhow and Austin Phyfe each added 15 points. Ben Krikke scored a Division I-best 13 points, including a season-high three 3-pointers. Merrillville native Mileek McMillan had 11 points, while Daniel Sackey added 10 points and three assists.
“We executed better than we have in a long time against a really good defensive team,” Lottich said. “I don’t think we did it for 40 (minutes), but we did for stretches.”