Valpo opens with 73-64 loss to No. 16 Arizona
Forcing up shots and passes in traffic, Valparaiso went nearly nine minutes without a field goal as Arizona built a big lead.
With the game all but over, the Crusaders didn't give up, chipping away until the final score was a little more respectable. It wasn't a win, but it was much better than being blown out.
Showing a little grit in coach Bryce Drew's debut, Valparaiso nearly dug itself out of a huge hole before falling to No. 16 Arizona 73-64 on Monday night in the season opener for both teams.
''Overall, we can learn a lot from the game and improve on that,'' Valparaiso forward Kevin Van Wijk said. ''We fought very well, we kept fighting and fighting. We didn't put our heads down.''
Valparaiso got off to a solid start and trailed by just two at halftime. The Crusaders went into a funk against Arizona's pressure to open the second half, though, going nearly nine minutes without a field goal while the Wildcats extended the lead to 20 points.
Valparaiso never stopped clawing and chipped away at the lead, hitting a string of baskets in the final 3 1/2 minutes to get the final margin under double digits.
Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff had 18 points each for the Crusaders, who have lost 34 straight games against Top 25 teams since Drew beat Mississippi with a buzzer beater in the 1998 NCAA tournament.
''We have a very inexperienced team from the standpoint we have some new guys we're trying to blend in together and guys who are still trying to fill their roles, back from last year but have new roles on this team,'' Drew said. ''I was proud of them. They didn't quit tonight. They fought till the final buzzer.''
Arizona lost star Derrick Williams to the NBA and has a roster full of young players, including the four heralded freshmen coach Sean Miller recruited a summer ago.
The mix didn't work too well in a pair of exhibition games; the Wildcats lost to Seattle-Pacific and didn't exactly light it up in a win over Humboldt State.
Under the spotlight that comes with playing games that count, Arizona took another step in its progression.
Overcoming some early jitters, the Wildcats turned a close game into what appeared to be a rout by holding Valparaiso without a field goal during a 16-3 run to open the second half.
Kyle Fogg shook off a shaky preseason to score 16 points and fellow senior Jesse Perry picked up where he left off late last season with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Two of Arizona's freshmen chipped in some quality minutes, too. Nick Johnson had 14 points and six assists, while Angelo Chol added six points, six rebounds, four steals and plenty of hustle.
OK, so maybe the Wildcats let off the gas in the closing minutes, but it was a win, their 20th straight at McKale Center.
''I don't think we're a No. 16-level team yet, but we'll reach our ranking,'' Fogg said. ''We have shown improvement and we can only get better from here.''
Arizona completed a quick turnaround last season, coming within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in a quarter century the year before.
The start of this season will be about filling holes and gaining experience.
Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, is gone and point guard Lamont Jones transferred to be closer to his family, leaving Arizona without nearly 40 percent of its scoring from last season.
Swingman Kevin Parrom also is out, likely until early December, after being shot in the hand and knee while visiting family in the offseason.
Whatever growing pains Arizona might be going through, it was still going to be a tough start for Valparaiso in its first season under Drew.
The former Crusaders star continued a family tradition by taking over for his father Homer, who re-retired after replacing his other son, Scott, in 2003.
The new Drew gets a team that will have to rely a lot on newcomers and inexperienced players after losing 60 percent of its scoring and 40 percent of its rebounding. The Crusaders have just nine scholarship players and Drew also is dealing with bigger issues - his father and mother, Janet, were both diagnosed with cancer recently.
Valparaiso didn't seem intimidated at all playing at the McKale Center with all those NCAA tournament banners hanging from the rafters.
The Crusaders patiently ran their offense and forced the Wildcats into some difficult shots to hang close in the first half, trailing just 32-30 behind Van Wijk's nine points and five rebounds.
Valparaiso had no answer when Arizona turned up the defensive pressure to open the second half, though, missing its first eight shots while turning it over nine times. The Crusaders had just three free throws in the half until Matt Kenney scored on a drive with 11 1/2 minutes left to cut Arizona's lead to 48-35.
''Credit that to Arizona's defense,'' Drew said. ''Obviously, Sean does a great job with his team defensively and to go along with that a lot of our guys are learning a new system, learning new plays. It'll just take time before they get a rhythm playing with each other.''