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Crusaders let late lead slip away in season opener

Crusaders let late lead slip away in season opener

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VU McMillan

Valparaiso's Mileek McMillan, pictured in a game last season, had 18 points in Friday's season-opening loss at Vanderbilt.

For all of the hurdles that the offseason has thrown at the Valparaiso men’s basketball team, the team nearly had a chance to knock off a high major opponent on Friday night.

Then the Crusaders ran out of gas.

Leading Vanderbilt 59-54 with 6:35 remaining, Valparaiso surrendered a 16-2 run over the next five minutes and ultimately fell 77-71 at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville.

“We got tired,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “I thought we should’ve won this game. We’ve had six practices as a full team, so maybe there was a little bit of rust expectation to be a little fatigued. We’ve got to try to not let one loss turn into two.”

The Crusaders lived and died by the 3-pointer on Friday night, hitting three triples in the span of 86 seconds to close out the first half tied at 34-34. As Vanderbilt began its comeback late in the second half, Valparaiso missed 3-point shots in bunches.

Donovan Clay missed a perimeter look after DJ Harvey cut Valparaiso’s lead to 59-57. Eron Gordon missed a trip after Ejike Obinna tied the game. Clay missed another 3-pointer after a Vanderbilt turnover. Finally, Sigurd Lorange missed a deep look after Scotty Pippen Jr. gave the Commodores the lead for good with 4:24 remaining. The Crusaders missed 16 of their 20 3-point looks in the second half and attempted 35 triples in the game.

“Some of those (3-pointers) were good looks, but a couple of them were quick shots,” Lottich said. “We want to work it and get a little bit better of a shot. I thought we got tired and maybe that’s on me. I’ve got to trust some guys on the bench.”

Ben Krikke played a team-high 34 minutes while Clay (32) and Daniel Sackey (31) also eclipsed the 30-minute mark. The Crusaders went a stretch of 25 days during the offseason where at least one player was out of practice due to COVID-19 protocols and the team was finding its legs against an opponent for the first time since playing Bradley in the 2020 Arch Madness title game.

“We were nervous to start this game,” Lottich said. “Like any first game, there were some jitters. We shot some quick shots. We had seven turnovers in the first eight minutes and then we didn’t have another in the first half.”

Had former Valparaiso and Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew been on the sidelines for either team, it is possible he would’ve used all of his timeouts in the first five minutes of the first half. Both teams were sloppy to start the game and neither program found a rhythm until late in the half.

Pippen Jr. led the Commodores (1-0) with 25 points while Maxwell Evans added 16 points and six rebounds. Both players signed with Vanderbilt after being recruited by Drew before the former coach was fired in the spring of 2019.

McMillan had 18 points to lead the Crusaders (0-1) while Krikke scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Clay had 14 points and five rebounds and freshman Sheldon Edwards had five points and three assists while starting his first collegiate game.

“It felt amazing to be back on the floor against someone else,” Lottich said. “No crowd, but it didn’t really feel different to me. Maybe not as noisy. It felt very normal and during this time, maybe that’s something we all are looking for.”

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Paul Oren has been a correspondent reporter for The Times since 2005. A member of the United States Basketball Writers Association, Paul has spent more than 15 years covering Valparaiso basketball.

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