VALPARAISO, Ind. – It only made sense in a tournament that saw four games ended by buzzer beaters that the Horizon League championship game would come down to the final minutes.
And so it did, before the No. 1 seed Valparaiso Crusaders used an 18-4 run over the final five minutes to overcome a six-point deficit and earn a 62-54 win over No. 3 Wright State.
It is Valpo’s first conference championship since joining the Horizon League in 2007. The Crusaders will be making their eighth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Erik Buggs scored a career-high 22 points in the win.
Valparaiso held a 36-25 lead at halftime, but Wright State came out of the locker room with a vengeance. The Raiders whittled away, eventually tying the game 40-40 when Miles Dixon hit a pair of free throws at the 12:34 mark.
Buggs countered with a runner at the shot clock buzzer to put Valpo ahead by two. But Dixon scored again on the other end, gathering a blocked shot and putting in a tough layup to tie the game.
The Raiders then took a 45-42 lead on Reggie Arceneaux’s 3-pointer from the wing with 9:21 to go, Wright State’s first lead since the score was 3-2 after the first two possessions of the ballgame.
A couple of minutes later, WSU took its largest lead of the game, 50-44, on a 3-pointer by Matt Vest, but Valparaiso went on a 16-0 run at the point to regain the lead and then some.
The final rally by Valpo began at the 5:13 mark, when Kevin Van Wijk hit a layup and then Buggs went for five straight points to give the Crusaders a 51-50 lead with 2:53 left. Ryan Broekhoff hit a 3-pointer from the corner to put Valpo ahead by four and Matt Kenney and Will Bogan combined for six free throws to punctuate the run and put the game out of reach, 60-50 with 15 seconds left.
Head coach Bryce Drew played his starting five seniors for the final 10:33 of the game without subbing.
“I wanted to give those five a chance to finish it out,” Drew said. "I thought the guys dug deep in their hearts and the last five minutes may have been the best five minutes of defense we've played all year."
After a quick start in which neither team turned in an empty possession until the 17:42 mark, the first half turned into a game of runs before Valpo took a 36-25 lead into the locker room.
With the game tied at 5-apiece, the Crusaders went on an 11-0 run to take a 16-5 lead with 14:22 to go as the Raiders went seven-minutes-plus without a point and just over nine minutes without a field goal.
Wright State recovered from the drought to go on a 8-0 run to cut the Crusader lead to just four, but Valparaiso responded with a 10-0 run highlighted by a pair of spin-move lay-ups by Buggs to take a 28-14 lead with just over four minutes left in the opening period.
The shortest player on the roster, Buggs carried the Crusaders when they needed him most with a career-best performance of 22 points, three rebounds, three assists and a game-high four steals. For his heroics, Buggs was named the Tournament's MVP, joining Broekhoff -- whose 3-pointer at the buzzer on Saturday sent Valpo to the championship game -- on the All-Tournament team.
"I can't say enough about these two guys," Drew said of Buggs and Broekhoff. "They are the heart of our team, Erik with his intensity, Ryan with his all-around play and everything he does."
Broekhoff had seven points, five rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal in the championship game. Bogan added 14 points and Van Wijk poured in 10 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for a double-double.
Arceneaux was the only Raider in double figures, scoring 14 points off the bench in the loss. Arceneaux and Dixon -- who hit a game-winning shot against Detroit on Saturday -- were named to the All-Tournament team. Green Bay's Keifer Sykes was the fifth honoree.
Having been picked to finish ninth in the Horizon League preseason poll, Wright State fell just short of a worst-to-first season, falling to 21-12. But with no seniors on the roster, the Raiders – the sixth-youngest team in college basketball – have the players and the gumption to continue to be competitive in coming years. For now, WSU will be headed to the NIT.
"I'm very proud of our team," head coach Billy Donlon said. "We have a resilient group. We have a group that's handled a lot of adversity. A lot of teams could have wilted and called it a day, and we did not."
The Crusaders improve to 26-7 on the year, setting a new school record for wins in a season, and will head to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
"It means a lot because I played with these guys for four years," Buggs said. "Getting over that hump and getting to the NCAA [Tournament], it not only means a lot to me but it means a lot to share it with my brothers. It's a family environment. It's more than a team."