VALPARAISO — Poised, experience players outlasted upstarts with potential at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Sunday afternoon.
The Valparaiso men’s basketball team welcomed first-place Loyola of Chicago, a Final Four team last season, into the ARC and had a nine-point lead with under eight minutes to go before the Ramblers asserted themselves.
Loyola held the Crusaders without a field goal for more than seven minutes and used a 13-0 run to take control in a 56-51 win over Valparaiso that kept the Ramblers on top of the Missouri Valley Conference with six games remaining before next month’s Arch Madness.
“We were right there,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “That was a wrong time to go on a big scoring drought. We’ll learn from it. We played hard enough to win. We didn’t make enough shots to win, they did.”
The Crusaders led 43-34 with 7:41 left after Javon Freeman-Liberty scored two of his team-high 17 points on a jumper. Valparaiso then proceeded to miss its next 10 field-goal attempts and didn’t score from the floor again until Deion Lavender hit a layup with 3.3 seconds remaining.
“Marques Townes, who hit some big shots offensively, is telling the whole locker room that we got stops and rebounds down the stretch,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “That was a key, that leadership down the stretch. That was about as physical as a game we’ve played in the Valley this year and to not turn it over against the press, that’s leadership.”
Townes, a fifth-year senior guard and one of the frontrunners for Valley Player of the Year, had a game-high 18 points, including eight points in the final eight minutes.
“Without getting those (defensive) stops then we can’t convert on offense,” Townes said. “Getting those stops at the end of the game, we practice those situations, last four minutes of the game. We really pride ourselves on that. Those were huge stops we got at the end of the game.”
A season-high crowd of 5,148 at the ARC saw a game that was played within two possessions until midway through the second half when Lavender converted a fast-break layup and the ensuing free throw to give the Crusaders a 41-34 lead with 9:17 remaining. Freeman-Liberty’s jumper less than two minutes later pushed the lead to nine and it looked like Valparaiso was going to deliver its statement win of the year against the Ramblers (16-9, 9-3).
Then Townes took over and the Crusaders (13-12, 6-6) couldn’t find a basket. Valparaiso falls back into a tie for fifth place with Southern Illinois while Drake, Illinois State and Missouri State are all 7-5, two games behind Loyola.
“It hurts in our locker room and it should,” Lottich said. “It means the guys care. It also means that if that’s the first-place team, we’re not far away.”
Lavender had 12 points and four assists against one turnover in 22 minutes off the bench.
Markus Golder was held scoreless for the first time all year as the redshirt junior missed all eight of his shot attempts. Lottich said after the game that Golder was battling the flu and he complimented Golder on a “gutty performance.”
Lottich also said that Ryan Fazekas “was close” to returning to action. Valparaiso’s leading scorer has missed nine games with a right ankle injury.