The realist’s script told the story of a Valparaiso victory. A veteran team playing on its home court for a spot in the NCAA tournament one year after losing the same game couldn’t possibly lose again, not to one of the youngest squads in the nation.
Wright State, never one to worry about what’s in the script, had a storyline of its own in mind, and for a long stretch in the second half Tuesday, it looked as if the Raiders would write the ultimate Hollywood tale of a rags-to-riches bunch that went from worst — at least in the preseason predictions — to first.
The dream ran into reality in the final minutes of the Horizon League championship game. Valparaiso overcame a six-point deficit and dominated crunch time for a 62-54 victory before a crowd of 4,457 at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“It hurts really bad,” said Wright State guard Reggie Arceneaux, who led the team with 14 points. “I can’t say we were all just satisfied with being in the championship game. Getting to the championship game is not good enough. We wanted to go to the tournament. Credit Valpo. They’re a great veteran team.”
The Raiders trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half. Valparaiso led 16-5 at the 14:30 mark, and nothing was going right on either end for the Raiders. Jerran Young and AJ Pacher both picked up their second fouls in the first 10 minutes, but returned to the game in the first half because the team needed them out there.
Wright State had two field goals in the first two minutes and none in the next nine. Finally, a layup by Tavares Sledge ended the drought. From the 18:30 mark when the game was tied at 5-5 to the 9:03 mark, when Sledge scored, the Raiders were outscored 13-2 and scored only on two free throws.
They trailed 36-25 at halftime, and it could have been worse. Kendall Griffin scored on a tip-in at the buzzer. The Crusaders shot 61 percent in the first half.
“I told our kids at halftime, ‘You guys are too worried about what’s at stake. Just go play like you have all season,’” Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. “We played the worst half of defense all season in the first half. I told them, ‘Go out and play a great one.’ We did that. Basketball IQ comes down to one word: experience. Our basketball IQ will grow from this loss.”
The last five minutes of the game were a similar disaster for the Raiders. They led 50-44 with 5:37 to play after a 3-pointer by Matt Vest, but were outscored 18-4 from that point.
“This game was won by them in the first five minutes and the last five minutes,” Donlon said. “That shows their experience, their basketball IQ. But I’m proud of our team. To come to a championship game, to give up (14) points in the first five minutes, which we’ve never done, and to come out at halftime and hold that team to (10) points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, that shows we have a resilient group.
“We have handled a lot of adversity. We just kind of lost our minds, and credit Valpo a little bit for the last three minutes. We didn’t execute a couple of plays we’ve run all season. We took a couple of bad shots. That’s just part of the growing process.”
The Raiders got back in the game by attacking the basket in the second half. A layup by AJ Pacher, a layup by Arceneaux, two free throws by Miles Dixon, a layup by Dixon and a monster dunk by Jerran Young were a few of the baskets they made during a 13-2 run in the second half.
But the shots soon stopped falling. Buggs tied the game at 50 with 3:59 left on two free throws. On Wright State’s next two possessions, Young and Pacher missed 3-pointers.
Buggs got to the line again at the 2:53 mark and hit 1-of-2 free throws to give the Crusaders a 51-50 lead. The teams traded turnovers, and then Young missed a jumper at the 2:17 mark.
On Valparaiso’s next possession, Broekhoff hit the shot of the game, a 3-pointer from the corner, off an assist from Buggs.
“I know where Ryan’s at all the time,” Buggs said. “He was in his spot in the corner. I hit him. The shot went in. It was a great shot by Ryan.
It was Broekhoff’s only basket of the second half. He finished with seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“Obviously, I wasn’t making shots,” he said. “The team and the coaches all came to me and said, Keep shooting. We want you to keep shooting.’ They had confidence in me. The shot before felt good and was just short. Buggs just hit me with the perfect pass, right in my shooting pocket.”
That was it for the Raiders.
“I take all the responsbility for the last three minutes of the second half,” Donlon said. “Maybe I should have called a time-out to settle us down a little sooner.”