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Mike Lopresti | | March 11, 2015

Valparaiso returns to March Madness

Bryce Drew Bryce Drew and Valpo return to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- The Valparaiso Crusaders are in the NCAA Tournament, overcoming a long laundry list of reasons why they shouldn’t be. Which means it’s time to pay homage to The Shot.

That’s what it’s been called here, since that golden spring of 1998. You’ve probably seen it every March, replayed a gazillion times. No. 13 seed Valpo, down two points to No. 4 seed Mississippi in the first round, ran a last-second, last-gasp, last-ditch play. Long pass, then a dish to a streaking guard on the right wing. Shot, swish, and everyone in a Crusader uniform was suddenly in a heap on the floor. A red-blooded buzzer-beater. Valparaiso eventually barged into the Sweet 16, and that remains the only year this school has ever won a game in the NCAA tournament.

The player who made it? He’s now coaching the Crusaders. So is Bryce Drew going talk to his guys the next few days about his playing days, as inspiration? Maybe add in something about assistant Roger Powell Jr., who played for Illinois in the 2005 national championship game?

A second-half surge pushed top-seeded Valparaiso past No. 2-seed Green Bay, giving the Crusaders the Horizon League tournament title for the second time in three years.

“As a coach, you want to make sure that you’re putting your guys in the best position to be able to win.  Our staff, a lot of us were players, and we really focus on what we can try to do as coach, and try to take the emotion out of it,’’ Drew said Tuesday night, after the Crusaders huffed and puffed their way past Green Bay 54-44 in the Horizon League championship game.

Does that mean he might show them The Shot?


That’s OK. They’ve all seen it anyway.

“We’re all aware of it,’’ Horizon tournament MVP Alec Peters said. “But you know what? That’s history now. We’ve got to try to do our best to create our own.’’

Added Vashil Fernandez, “We’re going to try to do some work in the tournament just like he did.’’

And they might. Valparaiso is 28-5 and could be trouble for someone next week. For one thing, the Crusaders are hard to score against, as their 38 percent field goal percentage defense attests. “Defense gets you through the tournament,’’ Peters said.

For another, they seldom blink in tight moments. Until Tuesday night, they had played nine consecutive games settled by single digits, and won eight of them.

For a third, they have been hardened by adversity, up to and including Tuesday night's moment of truth.

Starting point guard and Horizon League all-freshman team member Lexus Williams? Gone before the first game of the season with an ACL.

Backup point guard Keith Carter? Missed 10 games with a dislocated toe.

Forward E. Victor Nickerson? Had to come back from surgery to both hips.

Starting guards Tevonn and Darien Walker (no relation)? The former played only four minutes against Green Bay because of a knee injury, the latter only 20 minutes because he took a shot in the nose and looked like he had just gone three rounds with Manny Pacquiao.

All-Horizon first-teamer and leading scorer Peters? Took 13 shots against Green Bay, missed 10 of them. “I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean the entire game,’’ he said. “Hopefully everybody watching won’t guard me next week in the NCAA tournament.’’

All that doesn’t sound much like a conference champion with 28 victories. But the Crusaders have carried on. Freshman David Skara – a product of Croatia – came off the bench to hit five of eight shots Tuesday night.

“The great thing about our team is that every game someone else steps up,’’ he said. “[Tuesday], it was me.’’

He is the 31st international player for Valpo in the past two decades, with 18 different countries represented. Jamaica’s Fernandez blocked five Green Bay shots. The hobbled Tevonn Walker is from Quebec.

It all seems to work. This is the second team Bryce Drew has taken into the NCAA tournament. His father Homer, the man standing and clapping up in Row J on Tuesday night, coached seven more, including 1998.

“When you get into the tournament, it’s all about matchups, whether you get a good team you can matchup with,’’ Bryce Drew said “Michigan State was an awful matchup for us, because they were extremely big.’’

That was 2013, and the Crusaders were taken out in their first game 65-54. They’re hoping for better this time.

“We’re not done,’’ Peters said. “We know we can do some damage in the tournament.’’

Valparaiso has done it before, and there is a famous play to prove it. Drew didn’t seem too interested in watching it again. But there’s a good chance it’ll pop up in the next few days.

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