It was a night of upsets in the Horizon League as the first two quarterfinal games were played. Top-seeded Oakland and second-seeded Valparaiso took the court for the first time, and both fell.
A year ago, Valparaiso was the one-seed and Oakland was the two in this tournament. They both lost in their first games. This year was much of the same. Oakland fell to Youngstown State at the buzzer and Milwaukee gutted out a win over Valparaiso. The end result is that the top two seeds are now 0-4 in the Horizon League Tournament since it went to a neutral site last season. Here is how it all went down:
(9) Youngstown State 81 - (1) Oakland 80
Youngstown State was dominated by Oakland in their two meetings this season. However, they got their revenge on Saturday night.
The Penguins came out firing early behind 20 first half points from Cameron Morse. A Morse three with 4:43 left in the half pushed Youngstown State in front by 10. But Oakland wasn’t about to go quietly as the Grizzlies used a 9-0 run late to take a one point lead into halftime.
The teams went back and forth throughout the second half up until the game’s eventful final minute. A Jalen Hayes basket, two of his 27 points, gave Oakland a one point lead with 46 seconds to play. Morse missed a three on Youngstown State’s ensuing possession, but the Penguins were handed the ball back when Oakland threw away an inbound pass. Morse again missed and Youngstown State was forced to foul. Oakland couldn’t hit their free throw, which setup the game winning play.
With 3.3 seconds on the clock, Youngstown State inbounded to Morse. Given Morse’s 34 points in the game, Oakland’s attention was directed his way. With so much focus on Morse, Youngstown State’s Jorden Kaufman was able to slip to the basket uncovered. Morse was able to find him for the game winning basket as the buzzer sounded.
Hayes remarked post game that “we definitely thought that he (Morse) was taking that last shot.” Morse himself also intended to take the shot. In the post game he said he wanted to redeem himself after missing two shots a few seconds prior. Instead it was Kaufman, who had another excellent night of his own, who was too open to miss and Morse got him the ball. Kaufman recorded his second double-double in as many games at this year’s tournament with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
Youngstown State advances to the semifinals on Monday night. They await the winner of Sunday night’s quarterfinal game between Wright State and Northern Kentucky. The Penguins split their season series with each of those teams. A championship game trip is well within reach for Youngstown State at this point.
Meanwhile, Oakland suffered a similar fate to the one they faced a season ago. They entered the tournament as one of the favorites, but failed to win a game. Unlike last year, though, the Golden Grizzlies have the conference’s automatic NIT bid locked up.
(10) Milwaukee 43 - (2) Valparaiso 41
Offense was hard to come by in the night’s second game.
Milwaukee and Valparaiso both struggled mightily through the first half. The Panthers took a lead into halftime, but only managed to score 16 points. However, they held Valparaiso to just 12. Rather than dwell on their offensive struggles, Milwaukee Head Coach LaVall Jordan said he geared his halftime message to being proud of allowing just the 12 points to Valparaiso.
That pride in defense made the difference for the Panthers in the second half as well. They kept Valparaiso from getting into comfortable offensive sets all the way until the game’s final possession. With Milwaukee ahead by just two and just seconds on the clock, Cody Wichmann stepped to the free throw line. He missed the front end of the one and one, opening the door for Valparaiso.
The Crusaders came down the court with a chance to at least tie. However, they were only able to get up a heavily contested three from Max Joseph which didn’t hit the mark. Valparaiso Head Coach Matt Lottich said post-game that they had a play drawn up to get a shot, but Milwaukee’s defense stood tall as it did all night to secure the upset victory.
Coach Jordan felt that his team’s performance showed a great deal of maturity. In the past, he felt that his team’s offensive struggles caused them to lose focus on defense. As he said post game, shots “definitely weren’t going in tonight...but we didn’t let it affect our defense and that’s a great sign of maturity.” The Panthers held Valparaiso to just 31 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers.
They will need more of that maturity as they advance to the semifinals where they await the winner of Sunday night’s UIC/Green Bay quarterfinal game. Wichmann may be that source of maturity as the team’s lone senior starter. He led the Panthers in scoring on Saturday night with 11 points and will certainly be needed to produce moving forward.
From Valparaiso’s perspective, it was clear the absence of Alec Peters was a factor. The Horizon League Player of the Year was sidelined by injury. As a result, Valparaiso’s offense looked lost at times. Milwaukee’s defense gets plenty of credit, but the Crusaders did not get performances from Shane Hammink and Tevonn Walker like they did in the two final games of the regular season.
Valparaiso’s postseason fate is uncertain. They could be an NIT bubble team, but will have to wait it out on Selection Sunday to see if they get in. If not, they would certainly be able to play in the CBI, CIT, or Vegas 16 if they desire to do so.