Junior guard Tevonn Walker scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to help Valparaiso stave off repeated comeback attempts by UIC and win 70-59. The momentum started to shift in UIC’s favor with about 15 minutes left in regulation, as they were trailing 38-30. First, junior forward Kyle Guice made a great pass from the perimeter to Flames big man Tai Odiase, who slam dunked it. Then, freshman Tarkus Ferguson nailed a three from the wing. Ferguson then proved how great offense can lead to stellar defense, as he then stole the ball at the top of the key, which led to a layup for him and cut the Flames deficit to just one point. But then Walker started to carry the Crusaders and
take the game over, scoring their next 8 points, which included two three-pointers from the wing. Walker was equally comfortable driving and finishing at the basket, as no UIC defender could quell his quickness. One could say that Walker nearly pitched a perfect game, as he was 8-9 from the field, 5-5 from the free throw line, and only had two turnovers.
The first half was a bit sloppy with both teams combining for 17 turnovers, which included several traveling violations on each team. Walker also did a nice job defensively, as he drew two player-control (charging) fouls. Aside from taking a charge himself, Odiase also had 3 of his game-high 4 blocked shots in the opening half. There was not very much transition offense, as both teams set-up their offensives in the half court. Valpo senior Shane Hammink scored only 4 points in the game and had a frustrating first half, which culminated in a technical foul, after he tossed the ball in the air when he was called for traveling in the backcourt. UIC guards Ferguson and Godwin Boahen continued their excellent rookie campaigns, as they combined for 29 points on 11-21 shooting from the field. They also combined for 8 turnovers, which is not really that bad considering how often they handle the ball.
UIC’s biggest lead was 14-9 early in the game. But once Valpo took the lead a few minutes later, they held onto it for good. This was a physical game and the officials did a great job in calling it fairly. A good example was when UIC’s Clint Robinson and Valpo’s Alec Peters were going for a rebound on UIC’s side of the court. Veteran referee Lamont Simpson signaled a foul and then pointed to the other side of the court, meaning that it would be Valpo’s ball. But he promptly corrected himself that the foul was on Peters, and the ball would go to UIC. This shows how even the best college basketball officials can have momentary memory lapses. Speaking of Peters, the likely All-American went just 5-15 from the field, which including air-balling two three-pointers. UIC did a good job in clogging the lane and making it difficult for him to get to the basket. But he still finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists, which is an impressive stat-line for anyone.
This game marks the 16th consecutive win for Valpo over UIC. But it is clear that UIC is only getting better with every game, as they are the third youngest team in Division 1 college basketball. One cannot forget that UIC’s best player, Dikembe Dixson, did not play and is done for the season with a knee injury. Valpo continues to show their lack of depth, which is likely to catch up with them as the season wears on. But Walker’s play has to be encouraging for Crusaders fans, as he clearly had his best game of the season, which happened to be when his team really needed him. And don’t forget about the play of redshirt freshman center Derrik Smits, who had career-highs in points (11) and rebounds (6). He stepped up big in the absence of injured senior forward Jubril Adekoya.
Both teams are off until next Friday night when each will host one of the Horizon League’s Michigan teams. Valpo (11-3, 1-0) will host Oakland, in what should be an epic battle of the league’s two top teams. UIC (7-7, 0-1) will host struggling Detroit Mercy.