The Loyola men’s basketball team (9-5, 1-0) opened up Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play with a gut-wrenching 66-63 win over Valparaiso University Monday night.
Loyola led since the 10-minute mark in the first half — with its biggest lead stretching to 14 points — but the Crusaders came back and made the last 10 minutes of the game closer than Rambler fans would have liked.
Valparaiso first-year forward Donovan Clay led with 21 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting — including 4-for-4 from three-point territory — to chip away at Loyola’s lead. Despite shooting 50 percent from the free throw line, Loyola junior guard Keith Clemons sealed the deal for the Ramblers at the charity stripe.
“It was a typical Missouri Valley game,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said in a press conference following the game. “Two teams grinding it out. Every possession mattered. Neither team wanted to quit. We were fortunate to be up at the end.”
The Ramblers were picked to finish fourth in the poll and entered the day 8-5. The Crusaders came into the game with a 7-6 record and were voted to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the MVC this year. They were also undefeated at home.
Four of Loyola’s 10 players score in double digits. Junior center Cameron Krutwig and junior guard Jalon Pipkins both notched 13 apiece, while redshirt junior guard Tate Hall and Clemons added 12 and 11, respectively. Krutwig also tallied his 5th double-double this year and 12th over his career with 12 rebounds.
“I thought he missed a bunch of layups,” Moser said. “Krutwig got some big rebounds. He’s so special. He’s a winner. He does a lot of little things that help you win.”
Junior guard Lucas Williamson and Clemons led Loyola in assists with six each. This comes after Williamson hurt his ankle against Davidson University. It was unclear if he would play against Valparaiso until the morning of the game.
From the tip-off, it could have been either team’s game. Valparaiso took its first and only lead with 10:19 left in the first half. Loyola quickly took the lead and ran with it, shooting 54.5 percent overall and 50 percent from beyond the three-point line.
Although Loyola tallied 10 turnovers in the first half and didn’t score in the last 3:43 the Ramblers maintained their lead and entered the second half up 35-28.
The second half created some anxiety for the Ramblers as the Crusader offense improved to 46.7 percent shooting overall compared to 39.3 percent in the first half. Clay and sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty both notched impressive performances to give Valparaiso a lift. It wasn’t until Freeman-Liberty fouled out with 47 seconds left that the Ramblers seemed to catch their breath.
It didn’t last long, though, as Clay bounced back quickly and went up for a three-pointer that drew a foul with 29 seconds left in the game. But the officials looked at the replay and saw Clay’s foot was on the line, so it was only a two-point basket.
Despite the 31 combined points from the two young Crusaders — 19 in the second half alone — it wasn’t enough to overcome Loyola. The Ramblers walked away with their first win of conference play.
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on MVC preseason favorite Missouri State University Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. in Gentile Arena. The game is set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago.