Valpo and Milwaukee (sometimes known as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but not for this report) were charter members of the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (ACMU) in 1982. Just about the time Valpo was getting good, Milwaukee and several other members of the conference (which had since changed its name to the Mid-Continent Conference and had added and subtracted members several times) left for what is now known as the Horizon League, leaving Valpo to begin about a 10-year reign in what was left of the Mid-Con. From time to time, the two teams played each other in non-conference tilts, both at US Cellular Arena and at the ARC. Most recently in 2005, Jarryd Loyd helped winless Valpo stun the undefeated Panthers in Bruce Pearl's final year at the helm.
Since 2008, the two teams have been reconnected, and have played each other nine times. Most of the games have been nail-biters, and each of those games have resulted in heartache for the losing team. The Horizon League portion of the rivalry has been even up during the regular season, with the top-seeded Panthers defeating the 4th seeded Crusaders last year in the semifinals of the conference tournament in their only postseason meeting. We've had excruciatingly missed layups, highly controversial calls, very physical play, and even a buzzer-beating layup by Brandon McPherson on a steal of a hail mary pass to win by one point two years ago. We even have two coaches who can rant with the best of them.
In short, this series has not been for the faint of heart.
Tonight's game has worried me ever since Valpo lost three straight to Summit League teams earlier this month. I was concerned that the Panthers would simply prove to be the better team. What I saw tonight did not alleviate my concerns one bit. Valpo started very fast, building a 10-2 lead. Erik Buggs drove the lane like a knife through butter several times, and the Panthers played a bit sloppy. Valpo's defensive intensity created several mistakes and the run-and-gun Crusaders pounced on them for points.
A Panther timeout was all that was needed to wake the Panthers up, however. Before too long, Milwaukee caught up to the action (by slowing down the pace, as one Milwaukee fan pointed out to me after the game). Valpo still led at halftime, 28-27, but they were no longer dictating the pace. The second half started out strong for both teams, but as time went on, Kaylon Williams and Ryan Allen started having their way in the lane any time they wanted, and Tony Maier... well, my notes in several places contained the simple but deadly phrase "Tony Maier happened." Here's a tall guy who is deadly from three and who was impossible to shut down. By the third media timeout, Milwaukee had a small but steady lead. It wasn't growing, but it was maintaining. Kaylon Williams and Ryan Allen could drive the lane any time they wanted and score or dish or get fouled. Add to this the fact that Milwaukee cleaned up most of the garbage all game long, or so it seemed at least. Any time there was a loose ball, the Panthers seemed to be the ones with the surer hands (or luckier hands, or a little of both). They played a physical game of basketball, as they usually do, and had the upper hand most of the second half.
There were only eight fouls called in the first half, but over 20 called in the second half. And yet, I had the feeling the refs were, as they say, "letting them play" in both halves.
Somehow, the Crusaders battled back and even took a lead or two in the final minutes, ensuring yet another nail-biter between these two teams, but at crucial moments, the Panthers would clean up a 50-50 loose ball after a missed layup and inevitably one of their talented guards would create a scoring opportunity by beating his defender off the dribble. Down one in the final minute, Kaylon Williams drained a dagger of a three from downtown after yet another loose ball scrum ended with the Panthers retaining possession. Valpo was unable to get off a quick shot, and the shots they did manage missed. Ryan Broekhoff scored a meaningless layup at the buzzer to leave the final score 57-55. For the first time since 2008, the Panthers won at the ARC. That year was also the last year that the Crusaders won at US Cellular Arena in Milwaukee. Valpo fans probably don't want to be reminded of near misses like last year.
Once again, fans of the losing team were left to pull their hair out over missed opportunities, cruel twists of fate, and of course, questionable officiating. This is a very emotional rivalry, but for the players at least, it appears to be a healthy one. Once again, there were all the combatants, at center court, joining hands in a prayer circle.
Athletes, even Division I college athletes (and I think at the mid-major level it is still reasonably safe to call them amateurs) are far more mature about these fierce battles than fans like me are. I will never cease to marvel at how courage and confidence can endure in the face of such heartbreaking defeats, but they do, far more often than they don't.
And this, finally, is what draws me to this sport, and why, unlike other sports, I have no interest whatsoever in professional basketball. I'm just not all that impressed with NBA superstar teams who win championships by drafting the best players, trading for key pieces, and signing valuable free agents with access to practically limitless resources (a corollary: I'm not terribly impressed with high-major college basketball teams for some of the same reasons).
Which is odd, because if we switch to baseball, that's exactly the kind of stuff that impresses me. It must be something about the sport itself that just gets under my skin in a completely different way. I'm drawn to teams that have to battle incredible odds. They deal with injuries like all teams do. But they recruit at an incredible disadvantage. Their non-conference scheduling is held captive to the whims of the high major teams. They are forced to compete for NCAA at-large bids from a position of handicap because of that. They struggle to build a solid fan base, losing casual fans to other priorities they can't possibly compete with. They build their teams on a shoe-string budget compared to the high major teams. They are thrilled beyond all imagination just to see their name on the ESPN crawl once in awhile. Andy Katz wants to do a feature on you once in a blue moon? Stop the presses and roll out the red carpet for him. Invited to participate in the Bracket-Buster event and maybe even be on TV? Outstanding. Sure, it's disruptive, especially toward the end of conference season when conference tournament bids are hanging in the balance. But a chance to be patronized by Dickie V on national TV? Outstanding! Sure, it amounts to the have-nots waging war on each other while the haves look on in amusement, hoping to gain an at-large bid for themselves in the process when one mid-major deals a serious blow to another. But this is Bread and Circuses, and we're only too happy to oblige.
And against this depressing backdrop, better men than I am put their heart and soul into performing as best they can on whatever stage is granted them. For 40 minutes, with their performance -- at least on a night like tonight -- they proclaim to anyone who really pays attention: "This field of play belongs to us." It does not belong to ESPN. It does not belong to Dickie V or Digger Phelps or Jay Bilas or the cavalier columnists who annually proclaim the NCAA tournament in need of major overhaul because the Final Four just plain sucks year in and year out (maybe I'm late to the party, but it seems the high-pitched shrill has coincided with Butler's back-to-back run to national championship games). It doesn't belong to us fans either. It belongs to them, the coaches, and the officials. It also belongs to the NCAA, but that seems less important somehow. It belongs to the combatants. For 40 minutes (or more), they, and only they define what basketball is about. Screw polls, rankings, talking points, and the whole kit-and-kaboodle that makes up the Sportz Bubble. This is our court, they say. This is our home, and this is how we live here. We hope you like it, but if you don't, that's too bad. As long as we have pulses and scholarships, we're going to be out here dribbling the basketball against each other, learning about ourselves in the process, and not really caring what the Sportz Bubble thinks of our efforts.
MILWAUKEE 57, at VALPARAISO 55 12/29/2011
MILWAUKEE 10-4 (3-0) -- K. Williams 4-10 1-4 10; J. Haarsma 5-11 1-2 12; T. Meier 6-9 0-0 17; E. Richard 1-4 2-2 5; R. Allen 2-5 4-7 8; K. Kelm 1-7 0-1 2; P. Gulley 1-3 1-2 3; R. Haggerty 0-2 0-0 0; S. Boga 0-0 0-0 0; M. Roelke 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-51 9-18 57. VALPARAISO 8-7 (1-1) -- M. Kenney 2-8 0-2 4; E. Buggs 6-9 0-0 12; R. Broekhoff 6-13 5-6 18; W. Bogan 0-4 0-0 0; K. Van Wijk 5-11 5-9 15; J. Harris 0-4 0-0 0; B. Boggs 0-0 0-0 0; R. Edwards 3-5 0-0 6; H. Vucic 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-55 10-17 55.
Three-point goals: MILW 8-21 (T. Meier 5-8; K. Williams 1-5; J. Haarsma 1-3; K. Kelm 0-2; E. Richard 1-3), VALP 1-17 (W. Bogan 0-4; E. Buggs 0-2; M. Kenney 0-1; R. Broekhoff 1-6; J. Harris 0-4); Rebounds: MILW 31 (K. Williams 9), VALP 35 (R. Broekhoff 12); Assists: MILW 10 (K. Williams 7), VALP 10 (E. Buggs 4); Total Fouls -- MILW 16, VALP 16; Fouled Out: MILW-K. Kelm; VALP-None.