First-place Crusaders hold on to beat Flames
CHICAGO — For much of Saturday’s game at the UIC Pavilion, Valparaiso appeared to be on its way to another blowout, simply overmatching another opponent. Not so fast. The experience proved to be more harrowing for the Crusaders, who still emerged with a 70-65 win over the Flames.
And they emerged in a tie atop the Horizon League standings. Valparaiso (20-4, 7-2), Cleveland State (7-2), Green Bay (6-2) and Oakland (5-2) all have two conference losses, after the Vikings beat the Phoenix earlier on Saturday.
To be in that position, there were several heroes for the Crusaders, who held on after building an 18-point lead and withstanding a career-high 28 points from UIC’s Ahman Fells. Among that group, Tevonn Walker recovered from turning his left ankle to throw down a highlight-reel follow dunk and add a steal in rapid succession; Darien Walker snagging a career-high 12 rebounds, including a key offensive board; Alec Peters hitting key shots on his way to a team-high 19 points; and Vashil Fernandez setting the school record for blocked shots in a season.
“Any time you go on the road, it’s important to get a win, especially since we’re playing teams a second time around,” Peters said.
The Crusaders led 45-27 when Darien Walker scored with 18:16 left in the game, and seemed to be in total control of their 13th straight win against UIC. But the Flames (5-18, 1-7), who suffered their seventh straight loss, improbably climbed back into the game, closing to 61-60 with 3:47 left on a drive by Paris Burns (14 points).
After E. Victor Nickerson made two free throws with 2:38 left, Tevonn Walker (14 points) soared over a crowd of teammates and opponents alike to dunk a miss by Peters (8-of-15 shooting, 3-of-7 on three-pointers) with 1:39 left, making it 65-60. Four seconds later, he hit two free throws after coming up with a steal.
“I just wanted to get it (his ankle) retaped, and come back and play,” said Tevonn Walker, adding he was just trying to get a rebound on the dunk. “I wanted to help my team, and do what I could to help us get a win. I was able to do that.”
Walker had rolled his left ankle when, coming off a screen, he stepped on a UIC player’s foot with 3:30 left in the first half. He needed assistance off the court, and headed to the locker room. He tested the ankle before the start of the second half, when he wound up playing 18 of his 30 minutes.
“Our players are tough,” Crusaders coach Bryce Drew said. “A lot of players may not have tried to come back and play in the second half. Not only did he play, but he made huge plays to help us win that game. I know he’s going to be sore, we’ll rehab it right away.”
Burns made a three-pointer to cut Valparaiso’s lead to 6763, and after Fernandez missed an ill-advised putback, Jason McClellan made two free throws to make it 67-65 with 30.3 seconds left.
Darien Walker (11 points) was fouled, hitting the first free throw and missing the second, tracking down the rebound practically untouched. Tevonn Walker then was fouled with 15.9 seconds left, missing the first free throw and making the second, all but sealing the win for the Crusaders.