ISU comeback falls short in loss to Valparaiso

·6 min read

Jan. 23—Seemingly from the time Tyreke Key was lost for the 2021-22 season, Indiana State's men's basketball team has been fighting uphill.

Sometimes the hill is fate and bad luck — injuries and illness. Sometimes the hill is the opponent. Sometimes the hill is one made of ISU's own mistakes.

Through it all, ISU has had the gear to fight uphill, but hasn't always been able to conquer it. By that definition? ISU's 75-73 loss to Valparaiso on Saturday was a microcosm of the Sycamores' season as a whole.

The Sycamores had the challenge of injury, a bigger Valparaiso team, and self-inflicted problems to fight through at Hulman Center. ISU nearly pulled it off, but Valparaiso's Ben Krikke converted a defended hook shot with 6 seconds left and it decided the outcome after ISU had dug itself out of an 11-point hole in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Cam Henry led ISU with 25 points, 16 of them scored in the final 8:16 of the game. Kailex Stephens added 13 points. Krikke led the Beacons with 21 points.

The adversity ISU had was on and off the floor. Cooper Neese injured his neck on Friday and did not play. ISU has only had its full complement of players once since Christmas.

On the floor, ISU's foul trouble was acute. Xavier Bledson and Zach Hobbs both fouled out. Valparaiso's new-look roster — only Krikke, Sheldon Edwards and Eron Gordon — has significantly more size than Valpo teams of the recent past. At its best, Valpo used its size to get consistent touches near the rim.

ISU coach Josh Schertz had his eyes on another factor — Valparaiso's advantage in shots. The Beacons took 15 more shots than ISU did, though they only compiled seven second-chance points.

"We have to be almost perfect in generating shots. We shot 48%, but we turned it over too much [13 turnovers]. We've got to be tougher. We have to come up with more plays on the defensive glass. A possession game always favors the more talented team. When you're giving up 15 more shots? It's almost impossible. We were fortunate to be in it, to be honest," Schertz said.

Despite all of that? Henry, returning to action after a one-game absence, nearly single-handedly willed ISU to victory with a stirring late-game surge.

ISU trailed 63-53 when Henry got on a roll. A three-point play ignited a stretch where Henry scored 14 consecutive points for the Sycamores.

"My teammates knew what matchups to give me. Cam Crawford was being guarded by a big man, so he'd come up, set a screen, get a switch for me and see what I could do. They weren't helping off of Micah [Thomas], Crawford or Hobbs, so it was really just me and my man," Henry said.

Schertz said that the rotation difficulties — Bledson had already fouled out and Hobbs did during the run — left ISU with little choice but put the ball in Henry's hands.

"We just settled on getting as favorable a matchup as we could for Henry. We spaced the floor, allowed him to attack, and hopefully get downhill and get reads, with the way they were playing him, was obviously for him to go to the basket."

At the end of Henry's surge, ISU still trailed 73-67, but then Valparaiso started to provide ISU some help. Questionable shot selection and turnovers gave ISU some extra possessions. A Henry layup with 1:11 left cut ISU's deficit to 73-71, and then later, after Henry was called for an offensive foul, ISU's Julian Larry stole the inbounds pass, was fouled, and converted two at the line to tie the game with 36.2 seconds left.

Valparaiso finished when it mattered, though. Krikke made a contested hook over the top of Stephens with six seconds remaining. ISU's inbounds play didn't go as planned. Henry was double-teamed and the intended play for Micah Thomas didn't materalize. Larry's off-balance 3-pointer was well short of the mark at the buzzer.

"Valpo did a good job of double-teaming Henry to take him away. We had a pin-down for Micah, we just didn't get to it," said Schertz, who noted that the foul trouble took two shooters out of the mix in that situation.

The first half was even steven. For most of the half, neither team had more than a possession margin. ISU saved its best first-half stretch for last as it scored on its final five possessions to claim a 40-35 halftime lead.

Perhaps bad tidings were portended by ISU's first possession of the second half? Hobbs was fouled on a three-point shot ... and didn't make any of the free throws.

A bigger problem was that Valparaiso began to attack the rim with purpose. From the time Valparaiso tied the game at 42 to the point where it took its peak lead of 61-50, the Beacons (10-10, 3-5) scored 16 of their 19 points at the rim.

"They're huge and they're physical. Credit them for throwing it inside on us," Schertz said. "We're not going to get any bigger or more athletic, so the only thing we can do is get tougher, get more physical and play with more force."

ISU (8-10, 1-5) has lost four in a row, though it's been competitive in each game. It's a frustrating existence.

"Every game, no matter who we've got, we're going to compete, that's a given," Stephens said. "For us to win, it has to be avoiding turnovers and not letting them get more possessions than us. The small details matter for us and doing them is what can get us over the hump."

Schertz isn't taking the moral victory angle on this defeat.

"We don't have enough talent if we don't lock down the control-ables. We're close, but at the end of the day? It doesn't matter. It's a bottom line business. You win, you lose, no one really cares about who plays or who doesn't or the extenuating circumstances. We have to find a way," Schertz said.

ISU next hosts Missouri State on Tuesday. The Bears (15-6, 6-2) are on a high after they defeated Loyola 79-69 in Chicago. Missouri State guard Isiaih Mosley scored 40 against the defensively-sound Ramblers.