Valparaiso’s first 2020 home game was nothing short of eccentric with the game coming down to free throws in the last few minutes. Five lead changes and seven ties couldn’t sum up how close of a game Valpo played against Drake. Free throws by sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty and freshman guard Donovan Clay were the ones that made it count at the end. Winning 66-61 emphasized that every basket Valpo made counted.
The game started with an early lead by the Bulldogs, grabbing rebounds defensively and drawing fouls off of Valpo. After a five point run by Drake, Freeman-Liberty made the first basket of the afternoon with a three pointer. After Drake chipped in another basket, Junior forward Mileek McMillan helped with a four point run with a layup off the fast break with two free throws from Freeman-Liberty. After that, Valpo kept the lead for the majority of the first half.
With 54 seconds left in the first half, and each team tied at 32 points, sophomore guard Daniel Sackey grabbed a defensive rebound. Freshman forward Ben Krikke was passed the ball to give a pump fake dunk under the basket to give Valpo a two point edge. Drake repeated with their own dunk to tie the game up, ending the first half at 34 a piece for both MVC teams.
The second half started even slower on the offensive side, being down for 13 and a half minutes and trailing as much as seven. With six and a half minutes left, redshirt junior guard Eron Gordon started the comeback with a three pointer off the leftwing. Freshman guard Donovan Clay helped out and shot one from the right side of the court to make it a one point game. After a Drake layup in the paint, Freeman-Liberty returned the favor to reduce the trail. After drawing a critical defensive foul, Freeman’s free throw tied it to 57.
The last three minutes fell like dominos in Valpo’s favor. The first domino belonged to senior guard John Kiser. After a Drake layup, Kiser shot a three pointer from the outside right of the court to close the trail to one.
“One of the things we tried to do going small was trying to get [Drake’s] big guy out of the lane. He was changing multiple shots at the rim, and we thought by going small we can create more post advantages for our wings and some more free opportunities for John at the perimeter. He’s been shooting it great,” Lottich said.
Seconds later, Bulldogs made another layup to keep Valpo down by one. The next domino fell thanks to Clay. After rebounding Sackey’s shot, he was able to draw a foul, and was awarded two shots from the free throw line. He made both, and Drake called timeout after.
The next domino came from Sackey. In order to keep the lead, Valpo tightened their defense and looked to steal the ball. Down the court, Sackey’s ball tip gave Freeman-Liberty the chance to have a jump-ball and secure possession.
The last domino came from Lottich. He drew up a “homerun play.” A homerun play is when the player out of bounds passes the ball as far as possible down the court to run the clock out. Kiser threw the ball down half court, and Freeman-Liberty rushed downcourt quickly and was able to track the ball and secure it.
“In my head, when Coach Lottich drew up the play in the huddle, he said ‘throw it,’ and I was thinking if I was going to get open. When I saw John launch [the ball], I was going to automatically take off. So when I saw him launch, I took off and the ball fell right there,” Freeman-Liberty said.
Upon securing the ball, Freeman-Liberty was able to draw a foul. He made both of his free throws, extending the lead to three. On the next play, Clay was able to draw another foul and make his two shots after. The rest of the half fell Valpo’s way, winning by five.
Clay shined against Drake with 18 points. He made four shots from the field and made three three pointers. He also made all seven of his free throw shots and had seven boards. Freeman-Liberty also shot four shots from the field, two three pointers, and made five of his seven free throws. He also grabbed five boards and chipped in five assists.
After a loss against UNI on Wednesday, Valpo will play at home against Indiana State at 7 p.m.