• Aaron Ferguson

Valpo shows improvement, Freeman-Liberty sets career high in overtime loss to Cincinnati

Javon Freeman-Liberty was the pacesetter, wreaking havoc defensively and scoring a career-high 32 points with timely baskets.

It wasn’t enough, though. Valparaiso dropped its second game in 24 hours, but with a better effort with a stronger start and overcoming a 12-point second half deficit, ultimately losing 81-77 to Cincinnati in overtime.

“Our focus was getting better at what Valpo basketball does, how we want to play and how we played the previous game so we were really focused on the fundamentals and doing what we do well," VU associate head coach Luke Gore said. "We know there’s going to be a mismatch in size a little bit in a lot of games but you know what, we changed the tempo up on them and they had to match up with us."

Valparaiso finished in fifth place at Paradise Jam, going 1-2 with an opening-round win when over Grand Canyon and a semifinal loss to Nevada in the tournament based in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Crusaders (4-3) only allowed one dead ball offensive rebound in the first half, in which the Crusaders led 34-30. But Cincinnati (4-2) grabbed six offensive rebounds and scored 11 second-chance points in the second half and overtime.

“If we eliminate that, we win the game,” Gore said.

After an abysmal first half against Nevada, Valpo got off to a better start against Cincinnati, getting out to an 11-4 lead before the first media timeout and took a 34-30 lead into the break.

Freeman-Liberty scored 19 of his game-high total in the second half on an efficient 8-of-12 shooting. He also grabbed five rebounds and created four steals.

“I really thought he did a great job on the defensive end of dictating the pace and getting some steals but more dictating pace and eating up the ball like all our guys do,” Gore said.

“And then he made plays that you’re supposed to make. He made open shots and our guys did a good job finding him and he made a good job getting in transition.”

Daniel Sackey hit a layup and Freeman-Liberty created a steal and dunk to give the Crusaders a 38-30 lead with 18:26 left in regulation. But the Crusaders offense went cold, missing their next seven shots.

The drought allowed Cincinnati to go on a 24-4 run over an 8-minute, 14-second stretch to give the Bearcats a 54-42 lead.

“The message was just do what we did to get here — cut, move, play as one, keep moving the ball, keep attacking on defense, keeping people outside and keep doing the things we do defensively and thing will work out,” Gore said. “Stick together and compete one possession at a time and we’ll make a run at it, and that’s what they did.”

Cincinnati led 58-46 with 8:06 left in regulation when Valparaiso stormed back with a 17-3 run with the use of full-court pressure.

“We picked up the pressure a little bit, but this is just what this group does and this group," Gore said. "They just bond together and they competed and they caused some turnovers and they really attacked the rim and made their free throws and all that led to making the run after we had the lead, though. We gotta do a better job not getting down from that situation but we had the lead, we were commanding most of the game and then they went after and got that lead on us but it was a great fight to come back.”

Gore said there are limited travel options off the island and that the team is expected to return to Valparaiso around midnight Wednesday morning. The Crusaders will host Trinity Christian at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

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