When the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team entered the locker room trailing Illinois State by 17 points on Saturday night in Normal, Ill., head coach Matt Lottich’s message was concise yet clear – ‘just fight.’
His team did exactly that over the final 20 minutes, fighting from the 17-point hole to take its first lead of the game with 14 seconds remaining in an eventual 65-62 win over Illinois State at Redbird Arena. Sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting in the second half alone to help the program to its biggest comeback triumph in seven years.
How It Happened
- Valpo allowed Illinois State to shoot 51.5 percent in the first half including 58.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. That helped the Redbirds grab a 43-26 lead through 20 minutes.
- The Redbirds closed the first half on a 10-0 run that included four points in the final five seconds of the half with baskets sandwiched around a stolen inbound pass.
- After Illinois State went up 14 at 49-35 with 14:16 remaining in the game, the Valpo defense did not permit a point until the 7:02 mark, a span of seven minutes, 14 seconds. In addition, the Redbirds went over 10 minutes between made field goals.
- The stalwart defense that featured stop after stop allowed Valpo to embark on a 13-0 run that made it 49-48 Illinois State with 7:52 to go.
- Even after the impressive effort to get back in the game, there was work to be done to close out the comeback. Illinois State stretched the lead back up to five at 55-50 with 5:33 to go, but Valpo ran off four straight thanks to steals by Freeman-Liberty and Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) that led to fastbreak baskets by Javon.
- Valpo got even when Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Marquette Catholic [Providence]) buried a pair of free throws with 3:15 to go, but Illinois State scored the next four points. McMillan had a key layup at the 1:35 mark. Freeman-Liberty cut it to one at 62-61 with a layup with 48 seconds to go, then JFL came up with another steal & score with 14 seconds remaining. That’s when Valpo’s first lead of the evening occurred.
- Valpo needed another stop, and that came as Clay jarred the ball free and it rolled into the backcourt, where Freeman-Liberty picked it up and scored to boost the lead to three with 1.9 on the clock.
- Valpo deflected a full-court inbound pass out of bounds and Illinois State (8-18, 3-13) got a sideline inbound in the front court with 0.9 seconds left. Clay blocked the final effort and time expired as the ball spiraled out of bounds, sending the Valpo bench into a state of elation.
Inside the Game
- The 17-point comeback marked Valpo’s largest since Jan. 17, 2013, when the team came from 22 down to beat Detroit Mercy 89-88.
- Saturday marked Valpo’s fourth win when trailing by 10 points or more this season. It was already the 12th time in Lottich’s four-year tenure that Valpo has chased by double digits and came away victorious. Valpo has come from double figures down to tie or take the lead eight times this year.
- Valpo has won back-to-back games in Missouri Valley Conference play for the first time this season. This marks Valpo’s first set of consecutive wins since rapping off three straight from Nov. 12-22 against Saint Louis, SIUE and North Dakota.
- Valpo has matched its conference win total from last season with four games to spare.
- Valpo outscored Illinois State 39-19 in the second half after facing a 43-26 deficit at the break.
- Freeman-Liberty finished with 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five steals. He made 10 of his 14 field-goal attempts. It was his seventh game this season with 25 or more points, his 13th game with 20+ points and his 27th straight game with 10 points or more.
- Fitting on a night where his defense was just as crucial as his offense, Freeman-Liberty tied Lubos Barton (63 in 2001-02) for the most steals in a single season in program history. He will shatter the program record with his next steal. He finished Saturday with five steals, equaling a career high that was most recently matched on Dec. 3 at Eastern Michigan.
- Valpo held Illinois State to 26.9 percent shooting in the second half including 2-of-9 from 3-point range. It is the second straight game Valpo held an opponent under 20 in a half after limiting Southern Illinois to 16 in the first half on Wednesday. The Valpo defense forced 13 second-half turnovers including nine second-half steals on Saturday.
- Conversely, Valpo shot 59.1 percent (13-of-22) after halftime. Freeman-Liberty single-handedly equaled Illinois State’s second-half point total.
- Clay and Fazekas chipped in eight points apiece.
- Valpo has had 10 games this season decided by five points or fewer. The victory on Saturday allowed the team to improve to 6-4 in such games and 4-2 in contests decided by three points or fewer.
- Valpo totaled 11 steals, the team’s ninth game this season with 10+ steals and the team’s 16th game this season with nine steals or more. By comparison, Valpo had just four games a year ago with nine steals and two with a double-figure steal total.
- The win came short-handed as Valpo played without the services of senior John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville), who was sidelined by an injury.
Valpo (14-13, 7-7) will continue its stretch of consecutive road games on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Drake. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.