Valparaiso University star sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) once again put on his Superman cape during Saturday night’s Missouri Valley Conference semifinal at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
The league’s second leading scorer was coming off a bout with mononucleosis and a pair of single-figure scoring games to start the MVC Tournament, but none of that mattered on Saturday night. The star sophomore’s 29 points helped Valpo to an 89-82 win over Missouri State, cementing the team’s place in Sunday’s MVC title game. Senior John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) had his second straight career night, helping his team earn the right to play for an automatic NCAA Tournament berth on Sunday.
How It Happened
- Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) got the fun started by connecting on a pair of 3s in the first 90 seconds of the contest. Valpo’s first three makes came from beyond the arc, as Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) hit a triple with 16:37 on the clock to snap a 6-6 tie.
- A burst of four straight points by Kiser helped Valpo build up a 15-11 lead at the 12-minute mark. However, Missouri State followed with a 12-0 run to create an eight-point cushion after a second-chance trey by Keandre Cook with 9:01 left in the half.
- Isiaih Mosley hit a 3-pointer with 6:17 left in the first half, and the Bears had their largest lead of the day at 28-19.
- After facing a nine-point deficit, Valpo rattled off 12 consecutive points to take a 31-28 lead. Freeman-Liberty had a steal and fastbreak dunk during that sequence, then another steal that set up a Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) finish.
- Valpo regained the lead when Kiser connected for a 3 with 4:48 to go in the half, capping the quick burst. Valpo went into the break with a 40-38 halftime lead after making four free throws in the final two minutes of the half.
- After a Tulio Da Silva dunk trimmed Valpo’s lead to one at 45-44 with 17:39 left in the game, Valpo went on a 16-4 spurt to open up a 61-48 lead by the 12:50 mark. Ryan Fazekas (Chesterton, Ind. / Marquette Catholic) and Kiser hit triples on consecutive possessions to get the run going.
- Freeman-Liberty scored nine points in the first five minutes of the second half, setting the tone for the victory. His layup with 14:57 to go made it 57-46, pushing the Valpo edge to double figures.
- Freeman-Liberty kept scoring, including a jumper with 9:31 on the clock that made it 69-55, Valpo’s largest lead of the game.
- The lead was at 13 with eight minutes to go and stayed that way after Keandre Cook and Fazekas exchanged triples to make it 76-63 with 7:03 left. However, the Bears (16-17) made a final push, giving Valpo nearly all it could handle over the final seven minutes.
- Missouri State scored six straight points to cut the lead to seven, and got enough stops on the defensive end to elevate the heart rates of the Valpo fan base. Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place) converted two at the stripe with 2:12 remaining, then Freeman-Liberty’s jumper with 1:32 on the clock made it 81-69.
- It was 83-71 with 1:08 remaining, but Missouri State scored eight of the next nine points to close to within five with 28 seconds to go. Cook’s triple with 21 seconds on the clock cut the lead to three at 85-82, but Krikke made two huge free throws with 19 seconds left, and Valpo forced an errant 3-pointer by Tulio Da Silva on Missouri State’s final possession.
Inside the Game
- Valpo is making its 14th conference championship game appearance in the last 26 years with Valpo owning a 10-3 record in title games during that span. This is Valpo’s first Missouri Valley Conference title game appearance in just its third year in the league.
- Valpo is making its first title-game appearance in any conference since 2015, a year where Valpo beat Green Bay in a home Horizon League Tournament title game at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
- Valpo is making its first conference championship game appearance in head coach Matt Lottich’s four-year tenure.
- As a No. 7 seed, Valpo is the lowest seed to make the State Farm MVC Tournament championship game. UNI (at No. 6) was the previous low.
- The combined seeds of Valpo and Bradley tied for the high for an MVC title game with Bradley a No. 4 seed and Valpo a No. 7 seed. The record was set last year with Bradley and UNI at No. 5 and No. 6.
- Star sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty returned to form after averaging just 7.0 points per game over Valpo’s first two MVC Tournament wins. He reached double figures in all 29 regular season games that he played prior to missing the final two games of the regular season while battling mononucleosis. He exploded for 29 points, his third-highest total of the season and highest since a career-high of 32 on Nov. 25 vs. Cincinnati in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He scored 23 of his 29 points after halftime on Saturday night against the Bears.
- Freeman-Liberty’s effort was his 30th game this season scoring in double figures, his 14th game with 20+ points and his eighth game with 25+ points. He had a career-high nine made free throws (9-of-12) in Saturday’s game.
- Kiser scored a career-high 17 points, an effort that was less than 24 hours removed from the senior matching his previous career best of 14 in the quarterfinal upset of Loyola. Prior to the MVC quarterfinal against Loyola, Kiser had scored in double figures just once in 110 career games. He has now done so in back-to-back contests. He’s averaging 11.7 points per game over the three tournament matchups.
- Clay scored in double figures for the fifth straight game, matching his longest streak of double-figure performances during his rookie campaign. He is the only Valpo player who has scored in double figures in all three MVC Tournament games.
- Krikke scored seven of his 11 points at the free-throw line. He has nine double-figure outputs during his freshman season including three in the last five games.
- Fazekas had a season-high six rebounds.
- Valpo made nine 3s in the game and has now made a combined 19 3s over the last two games after going 0-for-10 in the first-round matchup with Evansville.
- Valpo had 31 free throw attempts, its second most in a game this season and most since 35 at Saint Louis on Nov. 9. However, Valpo made just 22, hitting at a 71 percent clip from the charity stripe.
- The top team in the league in assists per game, Valpo continued its success in that department by handing out 20 helpers on 29 made baskets.
- It wasn’t quite as epic as the 18-point comeback to beat Loyola on Friday, but Valpo did trail by as many as nine points with 6:17 left in the first half.
- Valpo improved to 9-0 this season and 31-2 under Matt Lottich when scoring 80+ points. In addition, Valpo improved to 1-6 this season and 3-22 under Lottich when allowing 80 points or more.
Valpo (19-15, 9-9) will take on Bradley for the Missouri Valley Conference crown on Sunday at 1:10 p.m. The national TV broadcast will be available coast-to-coast on CBS with Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner on the call. Links to live audio and stats are available on ValpoAthletics.com. The winner of the game will receive the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.