Derrik Smits continued his offensive development Wednesday night and the junior center added a strong rebounding effort for the first double-double of his career as the Valparaiso University men's basketball team picked up a road win over UNLV in the final iteration of the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge.
Smits had 20 points and a career-high 12 rebounds to lead the Crusaders to a 72-64 win over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Smits had scored at least 20 points just once in the first 68 games of his career and now has done it three times in the last four games. The uptick began when he scored a career-high 23 points against Wake Forest in the final game of the Myrtle Beach Invitational and then added 20 points against West Virginia in Saturday’s road loss.
“He’s confident and he’s skilled,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said in a phone interview. “I’m proud of him. Derrik has come ready to play and that’s been the biggest difference. He’s been energetic, he’s been a vocal voice. He’s having fun.”
The 7-foot-1 Smits continued his strong play and 7-0 Jaume Sorolla made his season debut after missing the first six games of the year with an ankle injury. Sorolla entered several minutes into the first half and made 1 of 3 field-goal attempts in nine minutes of action. The junior finished with three rebounds.
The Crusaders (4-3) trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half before cutting the deficit to 35-31 at halftime.
Smits scored the first five points of the second half and Valparaiso outscored the Rebels 15-2 to start the half, opening up a 46-37 lead with 14:22 remaining. UNLV (4-2) never got closer than two possessions the rest of the way despite some harrowing moments down the stretch as Valparaiso committed four turnovers in the final three minutes of the game.
“Just really pleased. UNLV is very athletic, really tough team,” Lottich said. “I’m proud of our effort. The way the (first) half closed, they were struggling with the way we were guarding them. We had them on their heels a bit and that’s the way we have to win.”
UNLV finished the game with 25 turnovers and the Crusaders turned them into 31 points.
Bakari Evelyn and Ryan Fazekas, who were projected two be two of Valparaiso’s leading scorers, struggled once again with shooting. The pair combined to go 4 of 23 from the field and Evelyn missed 5 of 7 3-point attempts. Evelyn went 7 for 8 at the line and had 13 points, five assists, five turnovers and four steals while Fazekas added nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass, and five points.
“Gritty, not pretty,” Lottich said. “That’s a saying that we have. Both of them were gritty. Ryan with the six offensive rebounds and Bakari handling pressure, stepping up to the free-throw line late and knocking down some big shots for us.”
Wednesday’s game marked the final time Valparaiso would compete in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge. The Crusaders improved to 2-0 in the event with their other victory coming last season in a 72-65 home win over Utah State.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last month that the Mountain West will enter into a new “challenge” series with the Atlantic-10 that will begin in the 2020-21 season. The Missouri Valley Conference has yet to announce any partnerships moving forward.