Friday, March 6, 2020

Rosenberg's recap of a wild Friday at Arch Madness

Photo Credit: Jeremy Rosenberg

By: Jeremy Rosenberg
Twitter: @CSportsOverload

On a historic day in the quarterfinal round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the underdogs proved king.

8) Drake 77, 1) Northern Iowa 56

Drake still had their mojo working after last night’s win over Illinois State. The Bulldogs came out hot, shooting 58 percent from the floor overall, and a scorching 60 percent from three in the first half. Led by versatile guard Roman Penn and senior Anthony Murphy, Drake was on fire. Sophomore Liam Robbins dominated the one-on-one battle with UNI sophomore Austin Phyfe. UNI was tentative, playing scared. You could feel the tension in the sizable UNI fan section.

A late 7-0 run at the end of the first half, however, brought the Panthers to a manageable deficit, trailing Drake 43-33. With UNI’s shooters, there was no reason to believe the Panthers could not comeback. It all depended on whether or not Drake could keep up the hot shooting.

It was UNI that came out hot, clearly fired up by some kind of locker room pep talk for the ages. Something along the lines of — ‘let’s try to avoid a colossal choke job.’ Phyfe began to get tough under the basket, outmuscling Robbins and drawing fouls. Conference Player of the Year A.J. Green began to play like it. The Bulldog lead was cut to two.

But just as UNI got close, Roman Penn took over on offense scoring 6 points in three minutes, and when UNI head coach Ben Jacobson called a timeout with nine minutes left in the 2nd half, Drake had stretched their lead to 56-48.

The run continued, and Drake eventually opened up a 16-point lead with 4:26 left in the second half. UNI shots would not fall, and the entirety of Panther Nation sat in stunned silence.

To be fair to Northern Iowa, Drake was as good of a number eight seed as Arch Madness has seen in many years. But the disappointment at UNI cannot be understated. This team and its fans had high hopes and lofty expectations. 

That’s Arch Madness, though. Better come out of the gate sharp or a hot team could cut you down. When the final horn sounded, Drake had pulled off an improbable but convincing 77-56 win, propelling the Bulldogs into Saturday’s semifinals.

For UNI, the NIT awaits, a bitter consolation prize for a team that expected so much more. 

(4) Bradley 64, (5) Southern Illinois 59

Game two had a different feel right from the get go. Both Bradley and SIU came out cold, setting the tone for a scrappy defensive battle. Freshman Lance Jones showed he belonged on the big stage, knocking down a couple of threes and finishing at the rim when needed. Along with the gritty play of senior Eric McGill, the Salukis went to the halftime locker room feeling pretty good.

Bradley rode the strong play of junior forward Elijah Childs, who at times looked like the best player on the court. Senior Nate Kennell came out shooting blanks, however, and was scoreless in the first half.

The second half featured a battle of number fives, with Bradley senior point guard and Lance Jones trading blows, back and forth. The game played out like a prizefight, with multiple ties down the stretch and no team leading by more than two. Graduate transfer Ronnie Suggs dropped in two free throws with 43 seconds left, and the game was tied 59-59.

A nifty feed from Nate Kennell led to an old-fashioned three-point play by Ja’Shon Henry, giving the Braves a 62-59 lead with 17.9 seconds remaining. Lance Jones' layup hung tantalizingly on then rim, but it was not meant to be, as SIU failed to score in the last 3:15 of the game.

Brown finished with 19 points and eight assists, while Elijah Childs had 16 points and nine boards. Three big threes from Finnish frosh Ville Tahvanainen were timely, and Bradley finished with a 64-59 victory.

As a side note, outstanding showing by fans of both these schools, it was a fantastic atmosphere for game two.

Saturday will have Drake (20-13) vs. Bradley (21-11) in the first semifinal. Roman Penn vs. Darrell Brown will be a classic March battle of point guards.

(7) Valparaiso 74, (2) Loyola 73, OT

            Eat your heart out, Horizon League. Valparaiso and Loyola of Chicago are part of the Missouri Valley now, and lead off the evening quarterfinal session. Any hopes Valpo had for a deep run rested with Javon Freeman-Liberty, and a big game would be required out of the Crusaders super sophomore for them to advance.

            In the first half, however, Freeman-Liberty fizzled, and was eclipsed by Loyola junior Keith Clemons. The Atlanta-area product knocked down 4-of-5 from three point range, and led all scorers at halftime with 17 points. Juniors Cameron Krutwig and Aher Uguak were content to do the dirty work, while Clemons lit up the scoreboard, and the Ramblers took a 36-22 halftime lead into the locker room.

            Freeman-Liberty had an utterly forgettable half of basketball, with 0 points, 1 assist, and 3 turnovers. Quite often a great player will break out after such a slow start, and without some kind of special effort from Freeman-Liberty in the second half, things looked bleak for the Crusaders. 

            The second half began much like the first one ended, with Clemons dropping in buckets and a protracted Loyola run. Loyola expanded their lead to 18 points, and looked like they were cruising to an easy rout.

            With Freeman-Liberty on the bench, the Crusaders managed to put together a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to seven. More heroics by Clemons stretched the lead back to ten with 5:45 left in the game. Credit to the Crusaders, as they kept nipping away at the Loyola lead, getting as close as three with 20 seconds left in the game.

            It took two missed free throws by Uguak to set up an improbable three, with two defenders in his face, by Valpo senior Ryan Fazekas to tie the game at 68 with 10 seconds remaining. Loyola could not convert and a game that once had them up by 18 was headed to overtime.

            Both teams fell cold in OT, Freeman-Liberty hit a nice driving jumper but fouled out on the next possession. Donovan Clay hit a twisting layup to put the Crusaders up 72-71 with 20 seconds left. Two Cameron Krutwig free throws had Loyola up 73-72 with ten seconds left.

            Senior John Kiser, who finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists drove the lane, and dropped a perfect dime to junior Eron Gordon, who gently kissed the ball of the backboard for the game-winning layup.

            Along with Kiser, fellow senior Fazekas refused to let Valpo die, even with Freeman-Liberty having an off-night, even with an 18-point deficit to overcome.

            The never-say-die Crusaders take a second Cinderella slipper into the Arch Madness semifinals. If Freeman-Liberty is on his game, watch out for Valpo to make the finals.

(6) Missouri State 78, (3) Indiana State 51

            It has been quite a quarterfinal day here in St. Louis. Drake began the day with an historic upset over number one seed Northern Iowa. Bradley and Southern Illinois battled in a tough, physical game. Valparaiso won on a late overtime layup, coming back from an 18-point deficit, and knocking off the number two seed Loyola.

            Therefore, it would perhaps be asking too much for Indiana State and Missouri State to deliver a classic to end the evening. But the way the two teams battled early on, the physical play, it couldn’t help, but tease another extraordinary contest.

            Junior Gaige Prim stood out, muscling his way around the paint, taking advantage of his size and skill. Seniors Lamont West, Tulio Da Silva, and Ross Owens seemed determined to prolong their college careers, and helped the Bears burst out to 25-18 lead late in the first half.

            Throughout the first half, Missouri State looked like the better team. The Bears were bigger, stronger, longer, and they seemed to want it more, winning the hustle plays and 50-50 balls. With ISU freshman Jake LaRavia on the bench in foul trouble, the Sycamores desperately missed his presence on the court. At halftime, the Bears took a 34-24 lead into the locker room.

            Missouri State came out in the second half determined to pound the ball inside, with Gaige Prim and Lamont West continuing to dominate the paint. Senior guard Keandre Cook, cold most of the night, confidently drilled a three that put the Bears up 60-42 with 7:44 left in the game. 

            Unlike the previous game, there was no miracle comeback to be had. The Bears were too long, too disruptive defensively, too athletic, too determined. The final minutes turned into a Da Silva highlight reel of dunks. In the end, Missouri State overwhelmed the Sycamores by the score of 78-51.

            Victory by the Bears sets up an intriguing semifinal with Valparaiso Crusaders. The Crusaders do not have the inside muscle to contend with the Bears, but they can shoot. If Freeman-Liberty can be on top of his game, Valpo should be able to keep the game within striking range of their senior shooters. If not, the Bears size and strength will advance them to the finals.