Words can't describe the emotions players faced Sunday afternoon after the passing of the former NBA star Kobe Bryant. Bryant, for both coaches and players alike, was seen as a fundamental influence in the development of many of these players.
“Someone like that, [he is] such an icon to the world. He didn’t just impact basketball: He impacted everybody,” said sophomore guard Daniel Sackey.
Instead of allowing this tragedy to dwell in their thoughts, they chose to honor him by focusing on Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality,” a mentality shown as a killer instinct and a weapon of momentum.
“We have shown videos of his work ethic, that Mamba Mentality. We have to go out with that killer instinct. We addressed it. The best way to deal with it is to honor him,” said Head Coach Matt Lottich.
It was that Mamba Mentality Valpo honed early on pushing them to take the win over Evansville 67-65. An early three point jumper on the outside left by Sackey opened the scoring for Valpo. Eight minutes later in the first half, Valparaiso capitalized on a 13-0 scoring run over five and a half minutes to extend the lead to 18.
Fans got to see the return to the home court of fifth year senior guard Ryan Fazekas. This was his first home game back after he injured his wrist early in the season. He subbed in for 18 minutes and chipped in eight of Valpo’s 19 points off the bench.
A highlight for Fazekas happened at the end of the first half when he made a critical three to extend Valpo’s lead from 10 to 13. Valpo ran off the court with an advantageous score of 36-23.
“Ryan [Fazekas] is very appreciative of the opportunity. He gave us a big lift,” Lottich said.
As momentum started to slow down, the game came down to certain individuals towards the middle of the second half. In the struggle to hold the lead, McMillan shot 12 points in 13 minutes while shooting five for seven from the field.
Sackey scored the first basket of the half, making a fast break layup in the paint off of an unassisted steal to extend the lead to 15. Evansville responded with a layup, but McMillan battled under the basket to extend the lead back to 15 again.
Evansville was able to find holes on the defensive end. With 12:53 left on the clock, the Aces hit a three pointer off to shrink the lead to seven. McMillan provided force to extend the lead to nine with a layup. He showed up again with a dunk assisted by Sackey a minute later to force a double digit extension. Although another layup was forced in by the Aces, McMillian hit a critical three point jumper to lengthen the lead to 12.
After another three pointer by Evansville and a media timeout, the lead shortened to five. Sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty restarted momentum after the timeout with his own two point bucket to build the lead again. McMillian followed up with two more points off the fast break before Evansville called a 30 second timeout with five and a half minutes to go.
“I saw Javon [Freeman-Liberty] get clipped a little bit, but that’s because I forgot to say switch. So I was like, I’m just gonna try to make a play on the ball. And I know with the time to score, I was like, I just gotta go up and block it,” McMillan said.
Chances got better for Valpo with half a minute to go. After drawing a foul in the paint, Freeman-Liberty was awarded two free throws. His Mamba Mentality extended the lead from two to four. He did so again 20 seconds later.
After another Evansville layup, the difference was at two points. Senior guard John Kiser performed another home run throw that was easily secured by Gordon, securing the game.
After McMillan’s effort, Freeman-Liberty and Sackey had 12 points each. Freeman-Liberty also had seven rebounds and four assists. This is Freeman-Liberty’s 21st straight game where he has scored double digit points. For Sackey, this is his third straight game.
This win marks the seventh home win for the team. Valpo will look to improve to eight wins against Illinois State on Saturday, Feb. 1 in the ARC. Game tips off at 7 p.m.