If Green Bay is a team that figures out quickly how much the refs will let them get away with, Cleveland State is the team that knows how to do this AND register loud complaints when they don't get away with contact. Gary Waters is a virtuoso at working the refs. One of the disheartening things about playing Cleveland State is when they are better at this than you are. They get away with contact; you don't.
Well, Valpo no longer suffers this disadvantage when it comes to the Vikings. And today was a perfect example. The calls did not favor Cleveland State (free throws were almost even, but CSU was whistled for 23 fouls, Valpo only 13). The play was physical as usual, and Valpo figured out how to make that work for them. Everybody's favorite Horizon League 2012 powerhouse came to the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC) this afternoon and found themselves battling up hill the entire game. They briefly gained the mountain late in the 2nd half, only to lose it.
36 games have been played in Horizon League competition so far this year. 54 remain. The overwhelming majority of those games have been buzzer-beaters or near-buzzer-beaters. Every one of the contenders has had at least one half of sleepwalking basketball (usually costly). Not only are we hard to figure, we're hard to survive if you are a serious spectator.
According to a member of the Valparaiso University athletics staff, since Valpo joined the Horizon League as Butler's travel partner, no HL team has ever traveled to the state of Indiana during conference play and scored a 2-game sweep over Butler and Valpo. Cleveland State just broke serve at Hinkle Fieldhouse two days ago, 76-69 (they led most the game). The Indianapolis Star's Butler beat writer suggested in the aftermath that this year, Cleveland State is what Butler has been the past few years: the team to beat in the HL. Milwaukee might reasonably beg to differ, of course, but CSU certainly looks formidable this year, in spite of the departure of Norris Cole.
So, as the Vikings invaded Valpo, they brought with them the solid potential to put a cramp in our aspirations. The Cleveland State "Way" is to play hard, agressive basketball with relentless defensive pressure. Indeed the game story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in today's paper lays out the strategy: jump out to a huge lead and control the pace with constant pressure and aggressive physical play. For some reason, they sported black uniforms instead of their usual green. Maybe it was supposed to lend a sense of foreboding to the occasion. But the foreboding was for them, not for the home team. Maybe the Indiana trip is just too hard for teams to negotiate and the Vikings were a bit gassed. Who knows? Whatever the explanation, Valpo decided to beat them to the punch, jumping out to an 8-0 lead with a relentless attack on the rim. All 4 baskets were from with 5 feet or so.
However, Cleveland State has tools in their arsenal, and they broke out one of them almost immediately: a diamond-and-one three quarter court press. Valpo immediately struggled to advance the ball up-court, committing a few turnovers in the process. Game on. The Vikings briefly took a 13-12 lead, but Valpo responded with an 8-0 run. During one exchange the ARC became Comedy Night at the Improv. Erik Buggs was called for carrying the ball, a violation that has been a point of emphasis in recent years. On the next Viking possession, Valpo coach Bryce Drew stood on the sideline in true deadpan fashion with jacket off demonstrating how, according to the last call, Trey Harmon was carrying the ball every time he bounced it. Several hometown fans joined in the comedy routine just behind the Valpo bench. It was worth a chuckle or two, but nothing more.
This press of theirs would prove to be problematic for the Crusaders the entire game. Valpo managed to handle it for the most part, but every once in awhile, the Vikings were able to turn their pressure into a steal and points, taking the lead near the halfway mark of the 2nd half. In a few cases Valpo broke the press but failed to convert the fast break opportunity. On the other hand, they did convert several other opportunities for easy layups. The Vikings also managed to draw all 4 of Kevin Van Wijk's fouls in the first 8 minutes of the 2nd half, attacking him in the post. The HL Men's basketball player of the week returned a few minutes later and managed to avoid fouling for the rest of the game while continuing to make his presence felt offensively.
You could tell that the Viking players were expecting the officiating to be looser than it was. As the second half wore on, the "HUH???" look became more and more prevalent. Of course, Valpo players are not immune to this condition either. It is natural for basketball players to greatly underestimate their capacity to foul.
In past years, CSU has simply been too strong for Valpo. Most of the time, the Crusaders struggled to even stay close. But since 2010, Valpo has been able to run with the Vikings at home and withstand the pressure just enough to hold serve. They have yet to win at the Wolstein Center but will have that chance again next month. Typically, Valpo will build a huge lead and then hang on for dear life as the Vikings apply relentless pressure.
Today, Valpo led for most of the game, but around the midpoint of the second half, Cleveland State made their move and built a 4 point lead. They even held it for a while, answering a Valpo basket with one of their own. But just at that point, Valpo switched to a zone that seemed to confuse the visitors and allowed the Crusaders to make a move of their own. A travel on a questionable call by reserve Charlie Lee turned a layup and possible foul into a turnover. Valpo managed to just barely break the press and once again score a layup with a foul for the icing on the cake. The foul was on Charlie Lee. It was that kind of a game for the Vikings.
What followed was a flurry of turnovers by the Vikings and the corresponding flurry of points by Valpo. When the dust settled with about 40 seconds to go, Valpo led by 10. "This game is over" never once entered my mind as Cleveland State immediately answered with a baseline jumper and a timeout. For one thing, Gary Waters is smart. For the first time this year, a Valpo opponent scouted our patented hail mary play. The bomb from Ryan Broekhoff to Matt Kenney was intercepted and quickly converted into a 3-pointer and the 10 point lead was down to 5 with 20.7 seconds to go. "This ain't over yet, not by a long shot," I wrote in my notes. In past years, Valpo has been known to wilt under this kind of pressure, but not this time. The Vikings got no closer than 5 as Valpo drove the length of the court for a thunderdunk by Broekhoff, with the Vikings trying in vain to foul. A free throw by Montgomery with 11.4 left put the final score at 72-66, giving Valpo their third straight home victory against the Vikings in Horizon League play.
For the 3rd year in a row, the Vikings brought their version of 40 minutes of hell to the ARC and just barely came up short.
at VALPARAISO 72, CLEVELAND STATE 66 01/15/2012
CLEVELAND STATE 15-4 (5-2) -- T. Harmon 4-15 4-5 13; D. Brown 4-15 0-0 9; J. Montgomery 3-9 3-6 11; T. Kamczyc 7-8 2-2 18; A. Grady 4-6 1-2 9; A. Pogue 2-4 2-2 6; C. Lee 0-1 0-0 0; L. Ndaye 0-1 0-0 0; M. Mason 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-59 12-17 66. VALPARAISO 12-7 (5-2) -- R. Broekhoff 5-8 3-5 14; E. Buggs 2-2 0-1 4; W. Bogan 0-0 2-2 2; J. Harris 5-9 0-0 12; K. Van Wijk 10-13 3-6 23; M. Kenney 3-6 2-2 10; B. Boggs 1-5 2-2 5; R. Edwards 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-45 12-18 72.
Three-point goals: CLST 6-21 (D. Brown 1-3; T. Harmon 1-8; J. Montgomery 2-7; T. Kamczyc 2-2; C. Lee 0-1), VALP 6-17 (B. Boggs 1-4; M. Kenney 2-5; R. Broekhoff 1-3; J. Harris 2-5); Rebounds: CLST 28 (A. Grady 10), VALP 27 (M. Kenney 9); Assists: CLST 16 (D. Brown 5), VALP 19 (R. Broekhoff 6); Total Fouls -- CLST 23, VALP 13; Fouled Out: CLST-None; VALP-None.