For the first time since 2004, the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team is headed to the Big Dance. The Crusaders earned an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament by bouncing Wright State 62-54 in the Horizon League Championship at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Tuesday night.
Valparaiso held an 11 point halftime lead, only to see Wright State climb back into the game and lead for a significant portion of the second half. Visions of last year’s come-from-behind Detroit victory over Valpo in the title game began to creep into the heads of Crusader fans. However, experience prevailed this time around as the senior-filled Crusaders pulled away from the senior-less Raiders down the stretch.
“I thought the guys really dug deep,” head coach Bryce Drew said. “The last five minutes may be the best five minutes that we’ve played all year.”
After facing a six point deficit with five minutes, 37 seconds remaining, the Crusaders went on a 16-0 run to tie the game, take the lead and break it wide open, all in one fell swoop.
Erik Buggs powered the Valparaiso offense with 22 points en route to earning the Horizon League Tournament Most Valuable Player distinction. Ryan Broekhoff swished a critical three with 1:49 left in regulation to build the lead to four and provide an encore for his Saturday night heroics, a buzzer-beating three to lift Valpo over Green Bay.
Broekhoff, who joined Buggs on the All-Tournament team, scuffled from the field for most of the contest, but maintained the confidence to take a meaningful shot.
“The team and the coaches all came up to me and said, ‘Keep shooting, we want you to keep shooting,’” Broekhoff said. “The shot just before I got really going was just a little bit short. I shot it and kind of held the follow through as long as possible and prayed it went in.”
The Crusaders will find out their next opponent this Sunday, which is “Selection Sunday.” Buggs said he has been watching Selection Sunday ever since he could pick up a basketball. This year he will be watching closer than ever before.
“It just means a lot,” Buggs said. “Just getting over that hump and getting to the NCAA. This not only means a lot to me, but it means a lot to get my brothers (teammates) to do this. It’s just living the dream right now.”
Drew, who played in the 1998 NCAA Tournament as a member of the Crusaders, does not believe that his team will need much advice on how to handle the biggest stage.
“We have a lot of experience,” he said. “I’m not a coach that sits and talks about what I’ve done or my experiences. It’s about them, it’s about the moment. We’ll just have to see how they respond to practice.”
Wright State kept itself in the game by forcing 25 Valparaiso turnovers. The Raiders outscored the Crusaders 24-8 in points off turnovers and 31-7 in bench scoring.
“I thought Wright State played great defense,” Drew said. “I think a lot of that was just the excitement of the game and wanting to win so bad that they (the Crusaders) were making bad decisions.”
Drew did not make any substitutions over the final 10 minutes, instead electing to ride his five senior starters until the end.
“I really just wanted to give those five a chance to win it or lose it,” he said. “Those five deserved the chance to decide the game.”
After the game, with a large contingent of Valparaiso fans in a ruckus, the Horizon League Champion Crusaders received their trophy and cut down the nets. For the six seniors, this moment was the culmination of four years of effort.
“This means everything,” Broekhoff said. “Obviously, the personal accolades are fantastic, but this is what we put in four hard years for. This is why we go to practice every day. We grind it out. We’ve worked hard in the offseason and during the season and all of that work is for this moment right now. We found a way. That’s what’s been amazing about this team. We find a way.”
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