CARBONDALE — Valparaiso guard Javon Freeman was about to turn an eight-point lead into a 10-point cushion early in the second half Saturday.
The freshman guard from Chicago appeared to have a clear lane to the rim before SIU's Armon Fletcher came over from the left side and denied him near the rim. The Salukis grabbed the loose ball and were looking for an easy two when Aaron Cook threw toward Sean Lloyd in transition. When the ball, thrown too far ahead of the 6-foot-5 Lloyd, bounced out of bounds near the far left corner of the court, it was just a delay of the inevitable instead of some Saluki momentum.
Derrik Smits, the Crusaders' 7-foot-1, 240-pound piledriver of a center, scored for a 42-32 advantage, and Valparaiso kept its one-game Missouri Valley Conference lead on everyone else with a 65-61 victory at SIU Arena. Smits went for 16 points and former Saluki guard Deion Lavender, Valparaiso's only senior as a graduate transfer, scored the final bucket on a pick-and-roll in the final seconds.
"That situation was tough," said Fletcher, who delivered a double-double (13 points and 10 boards) in the loss. "Gaining momentum and then just losing it off a turnover, or them hitting a tough or open 3, that just drains your energy, but we did a good job of fightin' in the second half. We have to have that same type of fight whether we're losin' or we're winnin'."
SIU (9-8, 2-2 MVC) did not have a horrid start, as it has so many times in big losses this season, but didn't come out of the gates guns a'blazin' either. With some active hands and some balanced scoring - three different players scored SIU's first seven points - the Salukis jumped out ahead 17-10 before Valparaiso (11-6, 4-0) closed the half with a fury.
Jaume Sorolla, Valparaiso's other 7-footer, scored to tie the game at 17 with 7:15 to play in the first half, and the Crusaders finished off a seven-point halftime lead with 10-4 run. Smits started the second half with a clean layup, and SIU trailed by double digits until making it interesting in the final two minutes.
Down 57-46 with 7:30 to go, SIU got within six off Darius Beane's tip-in with 3:24 to go. Beane, a freshman guard from Carbondale High School who played 20 minutes off the bench, grabbed seven of SIU's 22 offensive rebounds. Cook's 3-pointer got the Salukis within three, but Markus Golder put back a missed jumper with a dunk pushed the lead to five.
SIU center Kavion Pippen, who led all scorers with 23 points, converted to cut the lead to three. Valparaiso always found an answer. After Fletcher split a pair of free throws with 39.1 seconds left, it drew up a simple pick-and-roll for Smits. Lavender was the roll, and Smits found him right in front of the rim, where he laid it up for a four-point lead that proved to be the final margin.
"It just seemed like they kept comin', and kept comin,'" Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. "Even when they were missin', they were getting the rebounds, but our guys stayed together. They were poised, and, fortunately, we came out of here with a win."
Freeman scored 11 points and Golder had 10 for the Crusaders, who won their fifth straight game despite shooting 4 of 15 behind the arc. Valparaiso shot 48.1 percent from the field (25 of 52) and outscored SIU by eight at the free-throw line (11-3).
The Salukis didn't attempt their first free throw until 8:59 remained and allowed the Crusaders to turn 13 turnovers into 18 points. SIU had five assists on its first seven buckets, but finished the game with 14 assists on 25.
Smits' only assist, on the basket-cut by Lavender, proved big.
"We didn't have any help on the cut. We didn't have anybody on the other side of the deal, and a lot of the time that happens," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "And I get it, you start huggin' your man because you don't want him to score. That's not how you play defense. The biggest thing is we gotta figure out a way to guard the basket better. We're just giving up layup after layup."