CHESTERTON — The stenciled numbers around Viking Gym list the 51 sectionals that Valparaiso has won over the years.
"We talk 'Valpo tough.' coach Barak Coolman said, "There have been 51 sectionals before because of Valpo tough guys. We wanted to show that we're tough."
Valpo absolutely did in Saturday's Class 4A Chesterton Sectional title game, grinding past Merrillville 46-43, for its first sectional championship since 2011.
"Defense. Getting stops and finishing the stops with a rebound," said Brandon Newman, whose 27 points and 11 rebounds carried the Vikings. "We took care of the ball and stopped their transition."
Valpo (20-5) almost couldn't stand prosperity, missing three of four free throws in the last minute and turning the ball over to leave the door open for the Pirates. After a Newman steal, he split a pair of foul shots. Will Fulton then missed from the right wing for Merrillville, but Nate Aerts missed two free throws at 2.4, but Valpo exhaled when Rob Sanders hit the back rim from halfcourt as time ran out.
"Our guys like to keep it close," Coolman said, "We don't want anybody to leave early. We slowed it down (the second half). We made good reads and played better defense. We just got back to what got us here."
Merrillville (18-8) threatened to take control in the first half, leading by eight late inthe second quarter when a Marcus Gholston steal and layup gave the Vikings a lift heading to the locker room.
"That was huge," Coolman said. "It changed the momentum of the game. It could've went to 10 and it went to six."
Valpo pulled even in the third quarter, eventually reclaiming the lead at 40-38 on a Newman steal and layup. It milked the lead with ball control and went up 44-41 on Charlie Healy free throws at 2:32.
"Third quarters, we've had a little issue getting out of the gate." Pirates coach T.J. Lux said. "Obviously, you have to credit a lot of it to their defense. They kept us off balance. We were a little uncomfortable pretty much the entire night. We lacked patience the second half to stick with some things. They went to a zone and we got a little stagnant with what we do. They did a good job handling our pressure and getting back in transition."
The Vikings checked Merrillville star Johnny Bernard on just 10 points with Charlie Healy drawing the primary defensive assignment.
"He's a great player," Healy said. "We just pressured him a lot. (Defense) is a team effort. I'm up on him but I've got four guys yelling the whole time, which makes it a lot easier. He started talking to the refs and we knew we had him then."
Rishard Balkcom led Merrillville with 16 points.
No other Viking reached double figures besides Newman.
"We just told him, let the game come to you, play the way you're capable of," Coolman said.
Valpo will play Elkhart Memorial in the Michigan City Regional;.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Newman said. "All the hard work paid off."