|Posted by Brian Dickmann on March 11, 2015 at 6:30 PM|
For the third year in a row, the Green Bay Phoenix had their NCAA Tournament hopes dashed in devastating fashion at the Horizon League Tournament. And for the second time in three years, it happened in Valparaiso, Indiana.
The Valparaiso Crusaders (28-5) advanced to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Horizon League Championship on Tuesday night over Green Bay 54-44, adding to the growing list of heartbreaking losses Phoenix fans have experienced over the past 3 seasons.
There was the gut-wrenching buzzer-beater loss at Valpo two years ago in the Horizon League semi-finals and the soul-crushing overtime loss at home in the semi-finals a season ago against in-state rival Milwaukee. But Tuesday night's loss might be the most difficult to swallow.
It was Green Bay (24-8), on the road and playing in their first championship game since 1998, who jumped out to an early lead in front of a near sellout crowd of 4,713 at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
The Phoenix led by 10 with 2:00 left in the first half before a quick four point spurt by the Crusaders cut the lead to six before the halftime buzzer as Green Bay led 25-19 at the break.
Green Bay led for more than 30 of the game's 40 minutes. The Phoenix were able to extend the lead to start the second half before the bottom fell out when Valparaiso's Keith Carter hit a three pointer to put the Crusaders up for good with 8:40 left to play.
"It's a game of runs and a game of momentum," head coach Brian Wardle said after the game. "We just couldn't get over that hump of momentum. It takes making some shots."
Making shots is something Green Bay was not able to do in the second half. The Phoenix shot just 7-28 (25%) from the floor in the period, including a miserable 1-11 (9.1%) from three point land. They even struggled from the free throw line, making just 4-9 (44.4%) attempts in the second half.
"That's not going to get it done on the road against a team like Valpo," Wardle said. "It just isn't."
The Crusaders applied pressure, forcing bad shots and creating turnovers. Green Bay was still in the game despite poor shooting, but 9 second half turnovers sealed the Phoenix fate. Valparaiso scored 17 points off turnovers in the period.
The Phoenix scored just 6 points in the game's final 12:23 and didn't have a field goal in the final 4:19.
"I really thought we would come back and win that game, to be quite honest," said Wardle. "We cut it to 4 and I felt really good about our chances and then, you know, turnovers. We'd get a stop, come down, turn it over, which led to a layup or dunk or a foul."
"Overall, it comes down to us just taking better care of the basketball."
Keifer Sykes led the scoring for Green Bay with 14 points on 5-15 shooting. Alfonzo McKinnie scored 9 points and Greg Mays finished with 7 points on 3-13 shooting. Junior guard Carrington Love was solid on the defensive end with a career high 5 steals, but finished with 5 points on just 1-10 shooting from the floor and 3-6 from the free throw line.
"Sometimes you have an off night," Wardle said. "We had an off 12 minutes today."