Like their Milwaukee neighbor, the Green Bay Phoenix were original members of the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (AMCU) with Valpo, but bolted for the Horizon League (HL) in 1994, and now they have to deal with us all over again.
Unlike Milwaukee, Green Bay has owned Valpo since they were reunited in 2008. During the regular season, they are 3-1 at the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC) and 3-1 in Green Bay. In their only postseason meeting, Valpo prevailed at the ARC in 2008 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Two things are notable about Green Bay: (1) Dick Bennett -- need I say more? His legacy can be felt all around the HL, (2) They play in the shadow of their perennially ranked women's team, which is extremely rare in college basketball. The Lady Phoenix are the Butler of Horizon League women's basketball. The men's team was as high as a 2 seed in 2009 but immediately lost their one and only HL tourney game at Hinkle to eventual champ Cleveland State. Valpo has been to the semifinals twice in the same time period.
I wasn't around for the earlier portion of this rivalry, but since Valpo joined the HL, here is what I've noticed about the Phoenix: they always shoot lights out at the ARC, they have mastered the art of testing the limits of the referees, and they are not intimidated by anything. They get under your skin, they overachieve, and they seem to have an unlimited supply of tall, long distance sharpshooters. The names Schactner and Tillema, to name just two, would haunt Valpo fans for years to come if they weren't seamlessly replaced by names like Armstead and Cerroni. It doesn't matter that Aaron Armstead, for example, was shooting 4 for 23 from behind the arc. It seems like the Phoenix found a supreme confidence coming to Valpo a few years ago that has been handed down from one year to the next. Whenever the green, white, and red enter the ARC, they shoot like they are at the Kress Events Center -- home, sweet home. Add to that their capacity to figure out quickly how much contact they can get away with, and Green Bay has been to Valpo what the Minnesota Twins have often been to my White Sox: kryptonite.
2008 was the last time Valpo held serve against Green Bay. Today, Valpo is favored, in spite of Green Bay's 2-0 conference record. Most experts pick the Phoenix to finish in the lower half of the conference, with Valpo projected 4th or 5th. But the Phoenix never got the memo.
Valpo was also coming off a 1-for-17 performance against Milwaukee from behind the arc that was crucial to their heartbreaking 2-point loss to the Panthers. The Crusaders simply had to shoot better than that today if they were going to hope to beat the Phoenix.
At the ARC, unless ESPN is doing the game, our pre-game introductions/anthem/rev-up-the-crowd routine is a little difficult to get into, mainly because the lights take so long to come back on after the home team's starting lineup is introduced. Because of this, we punctuate the lineups-to-opening-tip transition with a respectful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner to give the lights a chance to come back on. It kind of kills the momentum in the building that got everyone fired up for the home team. When ESPN is in the house, the anthem comes first, then the introductions, and because of that, the lights stay on the whole time, which robs us of the light show and the emphasis on the video clip that plays on the overhead scoreboard. Just another challenge faced by the Crusaders on game day. Today, the anthem singer was dealt a curve ball when her brain cramped on the line "So gallantly streaming." In a portent of things to come, she took it in stride -- "so gal... oh. my. goodness" -- and then moved right on to the next line, and this was a capella. Today was a day of tremendous challenges. Nothing was going to be easy.
Valpo started out quickly again, though Green Bay recovered almost immediately. Nevertheless, Valpo brought their shooting eye today and they took a 13 point lead into the halftime, 49-36. For all of Green Bay's poise and smooth-as-silk shooting, they committed too many turnovers. Valpo played strong defense and pounced on most of the opportunities that came their way. They actually built as much as an 18 point lead, but Green Bay would not go away completely. Nevertheless, a strong first half should have put Valpo in a position to close the deal in the 2nd half.
One plus of the new video scoreboard installed this year is that the fans in the stands are treated to highlights during TV timeouts and also during the halftime. We got to see the many 3s drained by Matt Kenney, Jay Harris, and others, along with other special plays. For a New Year's Eve afternoon, the place seemed surprisingly populated. There were plenty of empty seats, but the ARC was far from empty. My section was packed to the gills, so much so that when Hrvoje Vucic entered and immediately got himself to the free throw line, I missed the entire play because the row in front of me was trying to sort out a seating controversy. I had to ask a friend at halftime what happened.
The second half was agonizing. The comeback was gradual, but it didn't sneak up on any of the Valpo fans because the back and forth was often dramatic. A Kevin Van Wyck half-court steal and thunderdunk brought the fans to their feet with thunderous applause, only to watch Cam Cerroni drain a 3 from the corner while Will Bogan knocked him to the floor for a 4-point play. The whole second half was a roller coaster, and if there had been more than 20 minutes alloted to a half of basketball, Green Bay would have eventually overcome and won the game. The lead hovered around 10 for a little while, ballooned to 15 at one point, and then fell back to 13, 11, 13, 10, 12, 10, 12, 9, 12, 15, 13, 11, and 13 at the under eight media timeout. From there things got even more intense. 13 became 10, then 7, then 6 after a steal and a 3-on-1. Valpo increased it to 8, but yet another 3 cut the lead to 5 at the final media timeout. A Valpo free throw was answered by a layup to cut the lead to 4. A Valpo layup was met by yet another 3. A Valpo layup was matched by a Green Bay layup and there was under a minute to go. Green Bay had stepped up their defensive intensity and Valpo was having one bad offensive set after another.
Then, in a scene familiar to Butler fans from last year's upset in Valpo, desperation 3s started falling for Valpo just short of the shot clock buzzer on possessions that were otherwise going nowhere. Jay Harris drained an impossible shot with a hand in his face to put the lead back to 6. With 21 seconds left, Sykes, a spark plug of a point guard about the size of Erik Buggs and just as good offensively if not better, hit a layup.
Valpo opponents need to scout us better in these situations. You've got to know that if Matt Kenney is on the court, and Ryan Broekhoff is on the end line with the ball, the former turns into Donald Driver and the latter turns into Aaron Rodgers, and you're going to get smoked with a hail mary. I've seen it too many times this year, and I saw it again today. Just like that, the lead was back to 6, though Kenney had to tap in his own rebound. To their credit, the next time Valpo had the ball on the end line, Green Bay took the hail mary away from us. In the meantime, they hit two free throws to cut the lead to 4 again with 11.3 seconds to go. Valpo was fouled with 9.8 to go and hit both free throws to make it 90-84, only to see Aaron Armstead -- remember that name, folks, he's only a freshman -- drain yet another 3 with a hand in his face to make it 90-87. Buggs missed the front end with 3.3 to go and the rebound was last touched by Valpo. Green Bay tried the hail mary, but it was well guarded and intercepted as the buzzer sounded.
It was that kind of an afternoon against a "lesser team" who did not know they were supposed to lose. They have the intensity and unselfishness that has come to be known as the Butler Way, even if they don't have the talent to match up to Butler. Fitting, since legend has it the Butler Way was learned from Dick Bennett.
It was also an afternoon when Valpo met every challenge, took every punch, and came out on top. The way they were hitting threes today made you wish you could have traded even one made three for one of the missed threes against Milwaukee, but even if that made sense, it wouldn't do any good. Valpo needed every single one of those threes today to come out a winner. Another split against the Wisconsin contingent of the Horizon League.
at VALPARAISO 90, GREEN BAY 87 12/31/2011
GREEN BAY 6-8 (2-2) -- K. Sykes 7-10 3-4 17; A. Brown 8-15 5-6 21; K. Cerroni 3-4 2-3 11; S. Baker 2-3 0-0 6; B. Cougill 0-3 0-0 0; A. Armstead 5-7 4-4 19; D. Turner 4-5 1-2 11; T. Johnson 0-0 2-4 2; J. Humphrey 0-0 0-0 0; G. Mays 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 29-49 17-23 87. VALPARAISO 9-7 (2-1) -- E. Buggs 2-7 0-1 4; R. Broekhoff 4-8 7-8 15; M. Kenney 8-13 1-3 21; J. Harris 6-10 0-0 17; K. Van Wijk 6-7 6-7 18; B. Boggs 1-5 4-4 6; W. Bogan 2-4 0-0 5; H. Vucic 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 30-56 20-25 90.
Three-point goals: GB 12-24 (B. Cougill 0-3; S. Baker 2-3; A. Brown 0-4; K. Cerroni 3-4; D. Turner 2-3; A. Armstead 5-6; K. Sykes 0-1), VALP 10-21 (W. Bogan 1-3; E. Buggs 0-1; B. Boggs 0-2; M. Kenney 4-6; R. Broekhoff 0-1; J. Harris 5-8); Rebounds: GB 21 (A. Brown 11), VALP 23 (R. Broekhoff 7); Assists: GB 20 (K. Sykes 7), VALP 15 (J. Harris 5); Total Fouls -- GB 19, VALP 15; Fouled Out: GB-None; VALP-None.