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Valpo’s NCAA dream dashed by Detroit

Valparaiso players sit bench as Detroit Titans celebrate their 70-50 HorizLeague Tournament championship Tuesday evening Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D.

Valparaiso players sit on the bench as the Detroit Titans celebrate their 70-50 Horizon League Tournament championship Tuesday evening at Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 10, 2012 10:59AM



VALPARAISO — It was all there for Valparaiso, all there for the taking — a return to the national stage, validation for a surprising season, the dream of every college basketball player in America.

Detroit was on its heels. Kevin Van Wijk was scoring at will. The Crusaders led by nine late in the first half. The Athletics-Recreation Center was a madhouse.

But then Ray McCallum Jr. showed up. And the Crusaders all but disappeared.

Led by their fiery point guard, Detroit dominated Valparaiso in every facet of the game in the second half, pulling away for a 70-50 victory and the Horizon League Tournament championship.

McCallum threw down a dunk with a second or two left in the blowout to punctuate the win, to the delight of the sizeable Detroit contingent and the derision of a disappointed Valparaiso fanbase. The Titans and their rowdy students danced on the giant Crusader logo at the middle of Homer Drew Court, and now they’ll be dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t know how to explain it — it’s not the best feeling, seeing them celebrate,” said VU junior Matt Kenney, who had seven points and 10 rebounds. “We worked all season, and this is what we worked for — to make the NCAA Tournament. We just came up one game short.”

The Crusaders are left with a guaranteed NIT bid — small solace for the regular-season league champs and tournament hosts.

It’ll be a week before VU plays its first NIT game. In the meantime, there are so many things that will leave first-year coach Bryce Drew and his players — all of whom return next season — kicking themselves every time they think back on this one.

Detroit’s defense — the out-of-nowhere difference-maker that helped them become just the second team to win four games in the revamped Horizon League tournament format — harassed the Crusaders into 18 turnovers.

Valparaiso — a team that hit 20 3-pointers in two regular-season wins over Detroit — was just 2-of-18 from beyond the arc. It took 30 minutes before Ryan Broekhoff (13 points, six rebounds) finally hit VU’s first.

Kevin Van Wijk (17 points, eight rebounds) — who was having his way with the Titans big men early on — took a shot to the side of his bruised knee late in the first half, missed the rest of the half and wasn’t the same player in the second half.

And Valparaiso’s defense — which held Butler to 27-percent shooting in the second half Saturday and Detroit to 29-percent shooting in the first half Tuesday, was shredded for easy buckets and trips to the free-throw line in the second half.

“Sometimes you just can’t control things, sometimes shots just don’t go in,” Drew said. “I don’t think Ryan Broekhoff will ever dribble the ball out of bounds ever again. Some nights, you just have those nights.”

But make no mistake, McCallum is why Detroit is dancing. His three-point play with 17:33 left in the second half — after which he turned to the Detroit fans, punched his chest and screamed — turned the tide of the game. He immediately forced Jay Harris into a turnover on the other end of the court, which led to an Eli Holman dunk. On VU’s next possession, McCallum fell hard going for the rebound and was slow to get up. But he trailed the play, caught up, got the ball and nailed an 18-footer to give Detroit a 32-31 lead with 15:42 left — its first lead since 5-4, and one it would never relinquish.

McCallum’s teammates followed his lead, playing aggressively on offense and ferociously on defense as the Crusaders wilted.

“We just said we wanted to come out and play with a lot of energy, a lot of emotion — play like it’s our last game and not let it be our last game,” McCallum said.

Broekhoff’s lid-lifting 3-pointer with 10:02 to go brought VU back to within 40-37, but LaMarcus Lowe (14 points, 10 rebounds) responded with a bucket, and McCallum hit another tough jumper to retake control. A Will Bogan 3-pointer — on which Van Wijk again fell and again aggravated his knee injury — got it to 44-42, but Chase Simon had a 3 of his own right afterward, and VU never threatened again.

Drew was baffled as to why his team, which had played just once in the last 10 days, was outhustled and outmuscled by the Titans, who were playing their fourth game in a week. But he thought Van Wijk’s injury in the first half — which came 30 seconds after his eighth straight point, which put VU up 23-14 and had the ARC in a tizzy — was a deflating moment.

“That definitely affected us,” Drew said. “Kevin missed two games this year, and we were 0-2 and weren’t really in either of ballgame. After he got injured, our team did not have the same momentum, the same energy, didn’t have the same flow on offense. And usually when you score on offense, it energized your defense. And we just couldn’t get scores (without him).”

Van Wijk had 12 points when he was hurt. He had five more the rest of the game.

“I tried to come back, but I just wasn’t the same,” he said.

As for McCallum’s last-second dunk, the sophomore NBA prospect apologized.

“I actually thought the time had run out,” he said. “I apologize for that. Nothing disrespectful, I just got caught up in the moment.”

Hard to blame him. It’s a moment every college basketball player dreams of. A moment Valparaiso had in its grasp, and lost.

And a moment the Crusaders won’t soon forget.

“We’re just going to use this as fuel for next year,” Kenney said. “We’ll remember what this feeling felt like, and try to change the outcome next year.”



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