Game #9-467: Green Bay Phoenix at Valparaiso CrusadersMarch 9, 2013 8:30 pm
I was this close.
This close to returning to St. Louis today and getting some much needed breathing room in my vacation balance account.
This close to witnessing first-hand the first ever 1 seed semifinal loss since the Horizon League switched to its current "Protect the top seeds" format
This close to seeing Ryan Broekhoff, Kevin Van Wijk, Erik Buggs, Matt Kenney, Wil Bogan, and Ben Boggs completely shut out from the NCAA tournament.
And Green Bay was this close to pulling off a gritty, gutsy, heart stopping performance that by all rights deserves to be remembered in the annals of the Horizon League at the very least.
And Wright state was this close to hosting their first HL championship game since 2007, the last time they won the auto-bid.
Valpo led for most of the game, but was only comfortable in the opening minutes. From the first media timeout, Green Bay made adjustments that would lead eventually to a late 2nd half lead. For most of the game it was Valpo that looked discombobulated - the same Valpo that walloped the Phoenix at the Resch Center, ruining senior day. And the monster game award goes to Kiefer Sykes who was simply unstoppable - mostly because his teammates were in sync with him. Erik Buggs can, all things being equal, lock down any point guard in this league, but in the 2nd half, Erik kept getting caught in an Alec Brown screen, and Sykes nailed every shot he took as a result. With Buggs out of the play, no one could stop the boy wonder who played with the heart of a champion.
And the Horizon League was this close to having a truly outstanding national story in the Big Dance. Keifer Sykes has overcome a ton of challenges in his life. I can't comment on a lot of that; I can only link to stories that have been written
, and a TWC32 interview
. But I can interpret what I saw last night: a tough, steely performance by a player who literally left every bit of himself out on the court and made every last ounce of effort count. Come to think of it, save for one fateful free throw miss by the 2nd best free throw shooting team in the Horizon League, every single Phoenix player made every bit of effort count. The only possible demerits I can see to give Green Bay are: (1) too many open 3s for Valpo (of course Valpo can be dinged for that too), and (2) the first 4 minutes when they came out flat and dug themselves a deep hole. Otherwise, I saw a well-oiled machine threatening to change the venue for the championship game for the first time since this format was instituted in 2003.
And yet with one off-balance downtown dagger by Ryan Broekhoff (after momentarily fumbling the ball off his leg), Valpo stuck a dagger in their collective heart and twisted it brutally. To outplay the home team in March on their home court for 35+ minutes and then have the win pilfered from them with prejudice has got to be one of the most excruciating experiences an amateur athlete can go through. You're not getting paid. If you're Brennan Cougill, you're out of time to make the NCAA tournament, and you might have to make a career in something other than sports, as those NCAA commercials tell us. Granted: maybe you were going to face that soon enough anyway, but you were certainly hoping to get at least a taste of the Big Dance. And you had to literally watch your last chance slip through your fingers. You were powerless to stop it, and you had to watch it, as did every pair of eyes in the ARC. And then you had to listen to 95% of the fans whoop for joy at your demise.
Valpo's unbelievable last second resurrection did not come without their own pain: once again, the entire Valpo fan base sat silent in the first half watching Kevin Van Wijk writhing in pain on the floor. You have no idea how tortured by feelings of fate we are. We believe that's what opened the door for Detroit's stunning put-down last year in the championship game.
This time, however, instead of his fragile knee, it was his right ankle. A fan behind me immediately opined that an ankle injury would not be quite as serious as if it had been his knee. Sure enough, several minutes later, Kevin re-emerged from the locker room, took his seat on the bench, and lobbied relentlessly to return to the court. Bryce Drew relented before the first half was over, and even limping a little, Kevin still made his customary impact on the game. In the 2nd half, I noticed he was playing for short spurts, then being relieved by Bobby Capobianco - that is, until there were about 4 minutes to go in the game, according to some Valpo fans behind the scorer's table. Coach Drew sent Bobby to the scorer's table, and Kevin yelled an emphatic "NO!!!" Bobby dutifully returned to the bench and Kevin played the remainder of the game.
Around the same time, I noticed a mean streak in Ryan Broekhoff I had never seen before. Every defensive rebound was snatched from thin air with extra relish, brought down to his chest, and guarded with his life against poking hands. He became like a receiver who would rather die than allow the vaunted Chicago Bears ball-punch schemes. Want to crowd and smother him? Be prepared to be cleared out by a player who would not be denied clearance.
These two seniors seemed to sense the end of their dream of playing in the NCAA tournament and dug down deep for a level of performance they had previously not experienced. This was their home court. It was on national TV. No way you are going to ruin our last chance. Alec Brown left his final free throw painfully short, Ryan Broekhoff played point guard (like he has done before), recovered his own fumble, and launched a perfect, unstoppable shot (he is 6' 7" after all) from about 25 feet away just before the buzzer sounded. Disaster averted. Valpo's nominee for player of the year then spent the next 10 seconds running away from his teammates who chased him all over the court before succumbing to the celebration scrum. Meanwhile the ARC let out a collective, colossal sigh of relief and joy.
And the green and white jerseys tried to make sense of what just happened.Oh. My. God.
at VALPARAISO 70, GREEN BAY 69
GREEN BAY 18-15 (10-6) -- K. Sykes 11-20 5-7 31; A. Brown 7-12 1-2 15; J. Fouse 3-5 1-3 7; S. Muhammad 1-3 0-0 3; G. Mays 2-4 0-0 4; B. Cougill 3-5 0-0 6; C. Stefan 1-2 0-0 3; C. Love 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 28-53 7-12 69.
VALPARAISO 25-7 (13-3) -- E. Buggs 4-7 0-2 8; R. Broekhoff 8-13 4-5 25; M. Kenney 4-8 4-8 14; W. Bogan 0-5 1-2 1; K. Van Wijk 6-10 5-5 17; L. Dority 1-2 0-0 3; B. Capobianco 1-2 0-0 2; B. Boggs 0-1 0-0 0; V. Fernandez 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-48 14-22 70.
Three-point goals: GB 6-14 (B. Cougill 0-1; C. Stefan 1-2; A. Brown 0-2; K. Sykes 4-6; C. Love 0-1; S. Muhammad 1-2), VALP 8-19 (W. Bogan 0-3; E. Buggs 0-1; M. Kenney 2-5; R. Broekhoff 5-9; L. Dority 1-1); Rebounds: GB 29 (J. Fouse 9), VALP 24 (E. Buggs 6); Assists: GB 20 (K. Sykes 6), VALP 16 (M. Kenney 5); Total Fouls -- GB 18, VALP 12; Fouled Out: GB-None; VALP-None.
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