Valparaiso fought off key injuries all season, so the adversity the Crusaders faced Monday didn’t faze them.
Trailing by eight points with 11:43 left in the Horizon League tournament championship, they picked up their defensive intensity to spark a 15-0 run and beat Green Bay 54-44 and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
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"It’s been quite a ride this season," said Alec Peters, who scored nine points and was named tournament MVP. "Being conference champs, tournament champs and now going to the NCAA tournament. we just had to bear down, play some defense and get some stops because we wanted this more than anything."
Peters had an off game with 3-of-13 shooting, including 1 for 8 from the 3-point line. David Skara led the Crusaders (28-5) with 12 points and E. Victor Nickerson added 11 as Valparaiso, which earned the conference’s regular-sseason championship and won its second conference tournament title in the past three years.
Keifer Sykes, the two-time Horizon League Player of the Year, led Green Bay (24-8) with 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting. He came in averaging 29 points in the Phoenix’s past three games, all wins.
The Crusaders made his night difficult by double teaming him through most of the second half and denying him good looks at the basket. Valparaiso scored 17 points off Green Bay turnovers, outscored the Phoenix 26-18 in the paint and held a commanding 25-3 advantage in bench scoring.
"They were just doing a good job of taking some things away," Sykes said. "I knew especially when I gave the ball up, it was hard to get it back. And then by the time we’d get it back, we weren’t in position to get a good shot or get a good score. They’re a good defensive team."
Green Bay led 25-19 at the half and led most of the game until the Crusader’s big run in the last 12 minutes of the second half. The Phoenix pulled to 46-44 with 3:24 left on a 3-pointer by Alfonzo McKinnie and two free-throws by Sykes, but Valparaiso scored the final eight points of the game.
McKinnie’s 3 was the only field goal the Phoenix got in the final 12:23.
A 3-pointer by Keith Carter with 8:40 remaining gave Valparaiso a 40-39 lead, which was its first time in front since early in the first half. Daeshon Francis had a chance to reclaim the lead for Green by at the free-throw line with 7:19 left, but missed both.
The Phoenix weren’t able to get closer the rest of the way.
"We went cold and the story of the game was turnovers," Green Bay coach Brian Wardle said. "You look at turnovers and missed free throws. There was a segment (in the second half) where we got to the foul line with the lead. We had an opportunity to stretch it. When you’re on the road, playing in that type of environment, you knock those down you build a little cushion."
Valparaiso earned the league’s automatic NCAA bid for the second time in coach Bryce Drew’s first four seasons. The victory extended the Crusaders’ own school record for wins in a season and improved their record to 15-1 at home this season.
"I thought our players in that second half really embraced what our school’s core values stand for," Drew said. "They’re a special group and I feel blessed to be able to coach them."
Valparaiso: This was Valparaiso’s third time playing for the Horizon League Championship in the past four years.
Green Bay: This was the 21st appearance in the Horizon League championship game for the Phoenix, but first since 1998. Green Bay won its lone tournament title in 1995, its first season in the conference.