After facing a 10-point halftime deficit and trailing by as many as 12, the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team made its patented second-half comeback to take a late six-point lead on host Eastern Michigan on Tuesday night at the EMU Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Mich. But the effort fell short this time as the Eagles prevailed 85-79 despite a 28-point, five-steal performance by sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young).
How It Happened
After falling behind 4-0, Valpo ran off eight straight points and eventually held a 10-5 edge with 16:47 to play after a layup by Mileek McMillan (Merrillville, Ind. / Merrillville), his second basket of the game’s early stages.
The Eagles (7-1) responded with eight straight points to take a 13-10 lead, setting the tone for a back-and-forth affair. Eastern Michigan’s Thomas Binelli – who hadn’t played all season – came off the bench and nailed three 3s in a three-minute span. That helped boost the lead to 30-21 with 6:20 left in the first half.
The lead reached 12 with 4:14 to go in the half, and it stood at 10 points as the two teams entered the locker room for halftime with EMU up 42-32. The Eagles shot at a 59.3 percent clip in the opening half, while Valpo turned it over 11 times.
Valpo ran off six straight points early in the second half to get within six, then a 7-0 burst cut an eight-point lead to one on a 3-pointer by Donovan Clay (Alton, Ill. / Alton). Valpo outscored Eastern Michigan 15-6 over the first 5:14 of the second half to make it 48-47 with 14:46 to play.
Valpo’s first second-half lead came when Freeman-Liberty nailed a go-ahead trey that made it 56-54 at the 11:18 mark. When Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper Place) laid one in with 7:23 to go, Valpo had its largest lead at 66-60.
That was followed by a 15-3 Eastern Michigan spurt, giving the Eagles a 75-69 lead with 2:24 remaining. Eastern Michigan’s Noah Morgan was huge during that stretch, as he finished the game with 21 points after having only two in the first half.
Freshman Sigurd Lorgane (Trondheim, Norway / Metis Vidergaende Skole) and Freeman-Liberty both buried 3s in the final minute to keep Valpo alive, but Valpo would get no closer than four down the final stretch in the eventual six-point defeat.
Inside the Game
Freeman-Liberty came within a basket of enjoying his third 30-point game of the season. He was already in elite company as one of 13 players nationally (entering Tuesday) with multiple 30-point efforts this year. He has scored 19 points or more in every game he’s played against an NCAA Division-I opponent this season and has scored 20 or more in six out of the last seven, with the only exception a game where he saw limited minutes against an NAIA foe.
Eastern Michigan entered the night leading the nation in steals per game, but it was Valpo that swiped 10 steals and won the turnover battle 18-14.
The Valpo backcourt of Freeman-Liberty and Daniel Sackey (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada / Thornlea) combined for nine of the team’s 10 steals. Freeman-Liberty equaled a career high with his second five-steal game, his first since Feb. 16 of last season against Drake. Sackey enjoyed his third career four-steal game, equaling a career watermark while setting a season high.
The Eagles entered the night ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense, and Valpo posted 79 points, the most allowed by EMU all season.
Redshirt junior Nick Robinson (Chicago, Ill. / Kenwood [Saint Joseph’s]) topped the team with seven rebounds, four of which occurred on the offensive glass. Sackey gave out eight assists, matching his career best from this year’s season opener against Toledo.
Eastern Michigan shot 61.4 percent for the game. Four Eagles scored in double figures, led by Ty Groce (23) and Noah Morgan (21).
Up Next
Valpo (5-4) will return home on Sunday afternoon to welcome Central Michigan for a 1 p.m. tip at the Athletics-Recreation Center. It’s Homer Drew Day as Valpo Athletics will celebrate the legendary head coach’s induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame prior to the game. The pregame banner-raising ceremony, which will feature remarks from Coach Drew, will begin at 12:39 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.