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Osipoff: Valpo focused on Horizon League title after heroic win

Valparaiso Universty's KevVan Wijk rides stationary bicycle stay loose after injuring his ankle against Green Bay during HorizLeague men's basketball

Valparaiso Universty's Kevin Van Wijk rides a stationary bicycle to stay loose after injuring his ankle against Green Bay during the Horizon League men's basketball tournament semifinals held at Valparaiso University on Saturday March 9, 2013. | Charles Mitchell~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 13, 2013 6:42AM



VALPARAISO — The season was all but over for Valparaiso, at least in regard to that singular goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Then it wasn’t.

The Crusaders, with those six seniors, were going to lose to Green Bay in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals. And then they didn’t.

When Ryan Broekhoff’s 3-pointer somehow found the bottom of the net — of course, with a host of other contributors, including Matt Kenney with his own late 3 — their season was saved.

After that roller-coaster, which ultimately came to a halt at the highest of highs, No. 1 Valparaiso (25-7) has to return to reality for Tuesday night’s championship game against No. 3 Wright State (21-11) at the Athletics-Recreation Center. And this veteran team, unwavering in its focus throughout, completely knows that the all-coveted NCAA Tournament bid remains one win away.

“We celebrated, and took care of that thing on Saturday night,” Broekhoff said. “We came in yesterday (Sunday), and said that’s happened, our goal is Tuesday. Obviously, this is where we wanted to get ourselves all year, and we have a great opportunity to do something we’ve wanted to do for what seems like an eternity now. But it’s all about Tuesday now. What happened on Saturday was great and fantastic, and hopefully we can celebrate that more after a win on Tuesday.”

Per their typical approach, the Crusaders allow themselves until midnight after one game, before turning the page to the next.

“We know we haven’t accomplished much of anything yet,” Erik Buggs said. “That was a great shot to get us here, but we know the results from last year, came in, the same type of game, and we lost (70-50 to Detroit). We’re just focusing our energy on Wright State. They’re a really, really good team. It’ll be a tough game.

“It’s just a second chance. Not many teams get a chance to play in two championship games, and we really value that. We have to take advantage of it.”

Valparaiso is seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004. Wright State made its most recent trip in 2007, its second overall.

Like the Crusaders, the Raiders are coming off a buzzer-beater in the semifinals. Miles Dixon hit an odd-angle shot from along the right baseline, as the preseason pick to finish last in the league knocked off Detroit, last season’s tournament champion.

Wright State coach Billy Donlon’s message to his team as it gets its “head out of the clouds” after winning that thriller?

“Play without regret,” he said. “Nobody can promise either team a victory on Tuesday. But I’ve been on two teams in championship game losses, and there’s very little greater pain in athletics than to lose one of those, and some of it is how you lose the game. So I want our guys to go attack the game. Don’t get caught up in our win against Detroit, how we won, how we played. Attack the game. There’s no doubt (Valparaiso coach) Bryce (Drew) will say the same thing with Valpo.”

The Crusaders swept the Raiders during the regular season, winning two competitive games, 69-63 on Jan. 19 at the ARC and 68-61 on Feb. 12 at Wright State. In the first game, Valparaiso scored on its last 10 possessions to rally from a 51-44 deficit with 7:44 left — no small task against Wright State’s defense — with Broekhoff scoring 12 of the Crusaders’ final 14 points over the final 2:17. In the second game, Valparaiso never trailed, holding off the Raiders, who closed to two points on three occasions in the second half.

Kevin Van Wijk — who had 18 points and seven rebounds in the teams’ first meeting, then 20 and nine in the second — expected to assume his usual starting role in the third, after spraining his right ankle on Saturday against Green Bay.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “There’s no hesitation, I’ll be ready tomorrow. The last two days have been different than I expected them to be, but I actually feel pretty good. It’s a process. I just have to keep working on it.

“The team is so mature and everybody knows what’s at stake, and I wouldn’t miss it. A lot of the guys know the feeling we had last year, and it’s just preparing us for a championship game, but also just another game. I think a lot of nerves got into the game last year, including myself — it’s a big game, a step to the NCAA Tournament. We just have to prepare like we always do — knowing the scouting report, knowing the personnel. We have to treat it like a normal game — obviously you’re going to be nervous, but don’t be too nervous that it’s going to affect your game. I think that’s what we’re going to do.”

Wright State has allowed a conference-best 58.1 points, surrendering 70 or more in a game three times, going 1-2. The Raiders allowed a season-high 83 points in a home loss to Detroit, their only 70-plus game in league play.

“We have proven that we can win close games, and win low-scoring, kind of scrappy games,” Broekhoff said. “That’s probably what we’ll expect tomorrow. It’s going to be a real defensive slugfest. Rebounding is going to be key, turnovers are going to be important, and being able to make open shots is going to be really key.”

Donlon, whose team has averaged 61.9 points scored, expressed nothing but respect for the Crusaders.

“Unlike Detroit, who has to play one way — scoring a lot — to win, Valpo can win other ways; they can score in the 60s and the 80s,” he said. “That’s the sign of a good team. Not that Detroit wasn’t a really good team, but that’s why Valpo was a little better.

“We’re going to have to score some to beat them. We can’t hold them to 55; they have too many threats.”

Around the rim: Valparaiso is 8-3 in its Division I history in league tournament championship games, with the first 10 coming in the Mid-Continent Conference. … Including their semifinals win against Green Bay, the Crusaders are 18-3 over the last 20 seasons against teams they had already beaten twice. They’re 5-1 in such games since joining the Horizon League, with their only loss coming to Detroit in last season’s league tournament final. … Valparaiso is 15-2 at the ARC this season, setting the program’s DI record for home wins in a season. The Crusaders have won 12 of those 15 games by double digits, including nine by at least 20 points. … Valparaiso received one vote in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll. … A win would set a program record for the most in a season.

Horizon League Tournament

First round, March 5

No. 4 Green Bay 62, No. 9 Milwaukee 46

No. 5 UIC 82, No. 8 Cleveland State 59

No. 6 Youngstown State 62, No. 7 Loyola 60

Second round, Friday (at Valparaiso)

No. 3 Wright State 66, No. 6 Youngstown State 59

No. 4 Green Bay 64, No. 5 UIC 63

Semifinals, Saturday
(at Valparaiso)

No. 3 Wright State 56, No. 2 Detroit 54

No. 1 Valparaiso 70, No. 4 Green Bay 69

Championship, Tuesday

No. 3 Wright State (21-11) at No. 1 Valparaiso (25-7), 8 p.m. (ESPN)



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