After making an unprecedented run to the Missouri Valley Conference title game by becoming the lowest seed to reach the final game in the 30-year history of Arch Madness, the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team fell a victory shy of reaching the NCAA Tournament with an 80-66 loss to Bradley on Sunday afternoon at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, a game that was played in front of a coast-to-coast national television audience on CBS.
Valpo owned a 38-36 halftime lead before playing a fourth game in four days caught up to the team’s legs down the final stretch. Although it didn’t quite culminate with the league title and automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes along with it, a special weekend of basketball saw the program prove it belongs in the Missouri Valley Conference.
After earning a haul of postseason conference honors in the week leading up to the league tournament, Valpo tacked on two more accolades this weekend. Senior John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) and sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Chicago) were named to the MVC All-Tournament Team.
How It Happened
- Bradley started fast, scoring the first four points of the game before a dunk by Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) got Valpo on the board.
- The early success of the Braves (23-11) continued as Nate Kennell’s 3-pointer with 16:15 to go in the half made it 12-4. Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) provided a response on the other end, then Freeman-Liberty joined in on the 3-point party to cut the lead to two at 12-10 with 15:11 remaining.
- Bradley extended the margin back to seven at 19-12 with 12:23 left in the half, but Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) swished a 3 with 12:08 to go to make it 19-15. Later, Eron Gordon’s(Indianapolis, Ind. / Cathedral [Seton Hall] trey decreased the deficit to three.
- John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) swished one from distance to make it a one-point game at 26-25 with 7:42 to go in the half, then Sackey tied it at the free-throw line. Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Providence) and Kiser both had game-tying 3s to create 29-all and 34-all deadlocks.
- After fighting from behind throughout the half, the same way the team has battled back time and time again all season long, Valpo broke through for its first lead with 1:42 left until the break. Freeman-Liberty converted a driving layup to make it 38-36, a score that stood through halftime. Valpo had seven first-half 3s from six different players.
- The early stages of the second half saw Bradley tie the game on several occasions only to see Valpo take the lead right back. Fazekas swished a 3 with 15:52 to go that put Valpo ahead 43-40. Another big splash from long range came out of the hands of Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place), who scored back-to-back baskets including a 3-pointer from Sackey to make it 48-42 Valpo with 14:32 to go.
- The Braves scored seven of the next eight points to create a 49-49 deadlock with 12:20 remaining. Sackey stemmed the tide with a fastbreak hoop after a Clay steal, but Bradley scored the next seven points to go up 56-51 with 8:19 to play.
- After Freeman-Liberty made a pair of free throws with 7:52 left to cut the Braves’ lead to three, Valpo didn’t score again until the 2:25 mark, also on Freeman-Liberty free throws. That game-deciding stretch featured a 10-0 run by Bradley, a team that punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
Inside the Game
- Freeman-Liberty turned in his second double-double of the season and the third of his career, racking up 24 points and 10 rebounds in the title game. Though he frequently flirts with double-figure rebound totals, this marked his first double-double since Nov. 12 at SIUE (30&13). His last against a Valley team was Jan. 29 of last season against Missouri State (12&15).
- Freeman-Liberty posted his 15th game this season with 20+ points and closed the tournament with back-to-back outings of better than 20 points. He averaged 16.8 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and accrued 14 assists and nine steals during the tournament, earning his all-tournament team nod.
- Freeman-Liberty continued his ascension on the school’s single-season charts as he now has 628 points for the season. In Sunday’s title game, he climbed over a pair of Bryce Drew seasons (617 in 1996-97 and 613 in 1997-98) to crack the Top 5 on Valpo’s single-season scoring list.
- Freeman-Liberty made eight field goals on Sunday to lift his season total to 227, passing Alec Peters’ 2015-16 season and moving into seventh on Valpo’s single-season made field goal list.
- By boosting his season point total to 628, Freeman-Liberty moved into the Top 10 in MVC history for points by a sophomore. After setting Valpo’s sophomore scoring record earlier in the tournament, he moved to eighth in conference history for points by a sophomore on Sunday.
- Three other players finished with eight points – Clay, Kiser and Sackey. Kiser averaged 10.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per contest during the tournament en route to his all-tournament accolades.
- In addition to becoming the lowest seed to reach the championship game, Valpo was the first team in the history of Arch Madness to play four games in four days. It was also the first time in program history Valpo played four games in a single conference tournament.
- Valpo made its first conference championship game appearance since beating Green Bay in the 2015 Horizon League final. Just two years removed from finishing in last place and being knocked out in the first round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as a first-year Missouri Valley Conference member, head coach Matt Lottich’s program did more than hold its own, ascending into a tie for sixth in the league standings before finishing as the conference tournament runner-up in the prestigious league.