The Valparaiso University men’s basketball team continued to find ways to win on Friday afternoon in the opening game of the Paradise Jam at the Sports and Fitness Center on the campus of the University of the Virgin Islands, beating a quality Grand Canyon team 78-74 in an entertaining affair. Four starters finished in double figures to help Valpo hold the last lead in a game that featured 18 lead changes. Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) entered the game with a season free-throw percentage of just 53.8, but he calmly swished in four free throws down the stretch that allowed the Brown & Gold to clinch the team’s fourth win in five games.
How It Happened
- Valpo set the tone with defense in the early going, swiping four steals in the first five minutes of the game against an Antelope team that had turned the ball over four times total in its last game on Tuesday against Montana State. Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) had a pair of steals in the early going.
- Despite turning the ball over at a high rate, Grand Canyon (2-4) kept pace with Valpo thanks to hot shooting. Throughout the afternoon, the team hit impressive, contested shots. The Lopes scored eight of the game’s first 11 points before Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville) knocked down a triple to cut the deficit to two. That sparked an 8-0 run that put Valpo up 11-8.
- Eron Gordon (Indianapolis, Ind. / Cathedral [Seton Hall]) came off the bench to contribute a fastbreak layup followed by a tip-in midway through the opening half to lift his team ahead 23-22. Another significant basket off the bench came with 6:05 left in the half as freshman Emil Freese-Vilien (Copenhagen, Denmark / Falkonergardens Gymnasium) connected on a topside 3-pointer to put his team ahead 30-28, his first collegiate make from beyond the arc.
- Freeman-Liberty continued to show off his improved shooting ability that has been evident throughout the season in the first half of this one. He buried his third triple of the half with 2:06 to go, tying the game at 35. Grand Canyon’s Carlos Johnson responded with a go-ahead 3, but then Nick Robinson (Chicago, Ill. / Kenwood [Saint Joseph’s]) came right back with a game-tying trey of his own.
- It appeared Valpo would have the chance to hold for the final shot of the half while already owning a 40-38 edge, but a missed shot followed by a baseball-style pass led to a fastbreak basket for the Lopes, tying the game at 40 at the break.
- The first half alone featured 16 lead changes, and GCU’s Johnson went 8-of-11 from the field for 20 points before the break.
- Valpo scored the first five points of the second half thanks to another Freeman-Liberty 3, then a steal and score by Sackey. A 10-3 spurt to start the half was capped by a traditional 3-point play by Freeman-Liberty, and with 17:29 to go in the second half, Valpo suddenly owned a 10-point lead.
- This wasn’t the type of game where a lead like that would hold, as a quality GCU squad responded by scoring 11 of the game’s next 15 points to make it 57-54 with 12:52 to play. The Lopes came all the way back to take a 63-62 lead with 9:48 remaining.
- Robinson buried a huge 3-pointer to put Valpo back up 68-67 with 7:15 to go, then John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) knocked one in from distance to extend the edge to four.
- Johnson nailed his fifth 3 of the game to cut the Valpo lead to one with 1:35 left, but the Brown & Gold coupled good defense with perfect free-throw shooting the rest of the way. Valpo made its final five free throws, with the last four coming from Sackey.
Inside the Game
- Freeman-Liberty tied a career-high with four made 3-pointers, equaling a mark set on Feb. 5, 2019 at Illinois State. He has scored 19 points or more in every game this season, including 22 to go along with six rebounds and a 6-of-7 free-throw showing on Friday. He also swiped three steals to boost his season total to 11 in just five games.
- Sackey pulled down a career-high six rebounds including a key board in the final minute of the game that helped seal the victory. He finished with 12 points and was credited with four assists and three steals.
- Freshman Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton) made his way into double figures with 10 points, the highest scoring output of his young career. He matched a season-best with his second straight four-rebound game while adding a block and a pair of steals.
- Robinson poured in 16 points and went 6-of-6 at the free-throw line while squeezing six boards.
- Valpo played without Ben Krikke, who was sidelined by an illness. McMillan was limited to 11 minutes due to foul trouble, and Ryan Fazekas remains out with an injury, but the short-handed team persevered for the win.
- Valpo shot just 39 percent to Grand Canyon’s 51.7 percent, but won the turnover battle 18-10 and grabbed nine steals. A key difference on the stat sheet came at the foul line, where Valpo went 21-of-26 (80.8 percent) and GCU created just six chances and made four.
- Valpo prevailed despite a 39 percent shooting clip that was its lowest of the season. However, the 11 made 3-pointers and the 80.8 percent free-throw shooting percentage were both season bests. This was the first time Valpo shot below 40 percent and won since beating Illinois State 58-56 on a buzzer-beater in last season’s Missouri Valley Conference opener on Jan. 2, 2019.
- The 11 made 3-pointers were Valpo’s most since Jan. 5 of last season, 12 at Missouri State.
- Valpo has at least four wins in its first five games for the fifth time in the last six seasons, continuing a recent history of strong starts.
Valpo (4-1) advances to a Paradise Jam semifinal against Nevada that will tip off at 4:30 p.m. Central Time on Sunday in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The game will be broadcast on FloHoops with Danny Lee and Kevin Lehman, on 95.1 FM Valparaiso WVUR with Todd Ickow and Brandon Vickrey and links to all coverage will be posted on ValpoAthletics.com.