After two days of top seeds winning, the lower seeds flipped the script in the Horizon League semifinals on Monday night in Detroit. Here is how it all went down:
Game 1: (4) Green Bay 99 - (1) Valparaiso 92 (OT)
Green Bay built on the momentum it had gained in the first two days of the tournament and used a hot shooting performance to down the top-seeded Crusaders. It was a tight contest throughout with Green Bay coming back from an eight-point first half deficit to take a three-point lead into halftime. Valparaiso stormed out of the gate after halftime, retaking the lead. But, Green Bay responded with an 11-0 run and the Crusaders would never lead again. While Valpo was able to tie things up with 9:45 to play, Green Bay responded as they did all night long to stretch the lead back out to seven. Whenever the Crusaders scored, Charles Cooper, Carrington Love, or Jordan Fouse were there to strike back for the Phoenix.
But, the Crusaders would not go quietly into the night. Valpo clawed their way back into the game with three-point shots from Keith Carter and Alec Peters in the final minute of play along with some timely missed free throws by the Phoenix. A missed jumper by Jubril Adekoya seemed to doom the Crusaders as Cooper was fouled and sent to the line for Green Bay. However, Cooper missed his first free throw before sinking the second to increase Green Bay's lead to just two with two seconds to play. That allowed Adekoya to throw a baseball-style inbound pass to a streaking Peters who caught the ball for an easy layup before time could expire to send the game into overtime.
The Crusaders luck could only carry them so far as Green Bay dominated the overtime period. Valpo was able to take its first lead since the first half on two free throws to kick off the period. From there, it was all Green Bay. The Phoenix ripped off 12 straight points to take a 10-point lead with just over a minute to play, the largest lead either team would hold in the game. The Crusaders tried to work their way back into the game by fouling but could not take advantage of some missed Green Bay free throws. The Phoenix held on for the upset win.
As mentioned previously, the trio of Cooper, Love, and Fouse carried the Phoenix to the victory. Cooper finished with 24 points, including 15 free throws. Love finished with 23 points while Fouse filled up the stat sheet with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. As a team, the Phoenix shot a blistering 54.5% from three which helped make up for sub-par free throw shooting at some points. Peters did his part to keep the Crusaders in the thick of things with a game high 32 points and 12 rebounds. However, Valpo did not have the shooting fortune of the Phoenix, shooting 38% from the floor and just 31% from three. The Crusaders were also without the services of starter Tevonn Walker, who suffered an injury in the final regular season contest that would hold him out of this game.
Game 2: (3) Wright State 59 - (2) Oakland 55
Not to discredit Green Bay's win, but Wright State pulled off the bigger upset. The Raiders were dominated by Oakland during the regular season. On this night the Raiders clearly had a game plan and executed it to perfection. From the opening tip, the Raiders were intent on running as much time off the clock on the offensive end as possible. Wright State would likely have struggled to keep up with Oakland's potent offense in a high scoring match. Therefore, the Raiders limited the amount of times the Golden Grizzlies would touch the ball by running as much time off the clock while they had possession of the ball. This kept the score in the fifties, right were the Raiders like it.
The Raiders strategy depended on efficiency in their shots and that is exactly what they got in the first half. Wright State took an eight-point lead into the locker room on the strength of a 58% shooting performance in the first half. Oakland, on the other hand, looked rusty after their double-bye and star Kahlil Felder only managed three points in the first half.
But, Oakland was poised to make a run. Backed by a decidedly pro-Oakland crowd, the Golden Grizzlies ripped off 11 straight points to take a three-point lead with just over eight minutes to play. Felder also began to heat up and momentum seemed to have shifted. However, the Raiders stuck to their strategy and used some baskets from JT Yoho late in the shot clock to hang around and retake the lead with 4:30 to play. It was back and forth from there until Felder stepped to the free throw line with under a minute to play. Felder split his free throws, leaving the game tied at 55. Oakland would not score again. Another basket from Yoho at the end of the shot clock forced Oakland to go for the tie with the shot clock off. Felder couldn't get his shot to go and the Grizzlies were forced to foul. Mark Alstork knocked down both of the ensuing free throws and Wright State escaped with a stunning win.
Alstork led the victorious Raiders in scoring with 18 points while Yoho chipped in 15 on very timely shots. Daniel Mortensen also contributed major minutes off the bench for the Raiders, scoring 11 in 18 minutes. Mortensen has come out of nowhere to be the surprise of the tournament. Felder ended up with 18 points to lead the Golden Grizzlies in scoring and Jalen Hayes recorded a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds in the losing effort.
Up Next: (4) Green Bay vs. (3) Wright State - March 8, 7 PM Eastern (ESPN)
The semifinal action sets up a championship game few would have predicted. Two hot teams will be playing their fourth games in four days for an NCAA Tournament berth. Wright State will likely look to employ a similar strategy as they used against Oakland to slow the game down and keep the scoring low. Green Bay, on the other hand, will want to force Wright State into turnovers and open up an early lead to cause Wright State to play catch-up.
Another ramification of the semifinals is Valparaiso's NCAA Tournament hopes being dashed. The Crusaders most likely will not be receiving an at-large bid to this year's tournament after losing in their semifinal contest. A team that could have done damage and played into the second weekend won't be making it at all.
Furthermore, possibly the nation's most exciting player, Kahlil Felder, won't be making the big tournament either. After the Valparaiso loss in game one, it seemed as if the Golden Grizzlies had a clear path to trying to do some damage of their own in the NCAA Tournament. Now, the Horizon League will be sending either its third or fourth place team on to the tournament. Either victor will likely be given a very low seed, seriously hurting the conference's chances at winning a game.