VALPARAISO, Ind. – Wright State spent all season defying the odds.
It finished in the top half of the Horizon League after being picked last. It beat defending league tourney champion Detroit in Saturday's semifinals on a buzzer-beating shot from behind the backboard. On Tuesday night, it even had two-time defending regular-season champ Valparaiso down six with 5½ minutes to go.
Then, everything went wrong for the Raiders.
Valparaiso scored 16 straight points and finished the game on 18-4 run to pull away from Wright State 62-54 in the conference's tournament championship game.
"The game was won in the first five minutes and the last five minutes," said Billy Donlon, the league's coach of the year. "That shows their experience, their basketball I.Q."
During the other 30 minutes, the nation's 11th youngest team looked like a credible foe.
Yes, they missed 11 straight shots in the first half and went nine minutes between baskets. Somehow, though, they only trailed by 11 at halftime and only allowed six points in the first 13 minutes of the second half.
They forced Valpo (26-7) into a season-high 25 turnovers and allowed the Crusaders to score just six points in the first 13 minutes of the second half, and even with only one player, Reggie Arcenceaux, reaching double figures, the Raiders were still in position to win late. Arceneaux finished with 14.
They just couldn't close it out against a senior-dominated team playing in front of a sell-out crowd poised for a party.
"To come into the championship game and give up 15 points in the first four minutes, which we've never done, and then to hold that team to 12 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, that just shows we have a resilient group," Donlon said.
The win sent Valparaiso back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
It was a journey two years in the making.
A year after blowing home-court advantage in the league tournament's title game, and then after wasting an 11-point halftime lead Tuesday night in another league championship game, Drew's team somehow collected itself, went on an 18-4 run and pulled away from third-seeded Wright State 62-54 to lock up the Horizon's automatic tourney bid.
Afterward, students rushed over and jumped up and down with the Crusaders, who are making their first NCAA appearance since 2004.
"They're both special," coach Bryce Drew said when asked to compare this league title with the one he earned as a player 15 years ago. "As a player you're kind of in the moment. But this one is special because I'm so excited for all the other people to get see them go and see them celebrate Selection Sunday."
It sure wasn't supposed to be this hard for a team that had won just about everything except the postseason crown during the past two seasons.
Valpo (26-7) captured the regular-season title in 2012 when Drew, who made a memorable buzzer-beater to send the school to the regional semifinal run in 1998, was named coach of the year in his first season after replacing his father, Homer. This year, Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk were all-league selections and LaVonte Dority was named the league's sixth man of the year.
But it was another guy who stole the show Tuesday.
In a game that nearly spun away from the Crusaders, all-league defensive player Erik Buggs came up big on the offensive end. He finished with a career-high 22 points, three assists and four steals and settled down the struggling Crusaders late in the second half. Will Bogan scored 14 points and Van Wijk added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Buggs was named MVP and seemingly everyone, including longtime Valpo coach Homer Drew, helped cut down the nets.
They'll head into the tourney on a six-game winning streak and after breaking the school's single-season record for victories. The previous mark of 25 was set in 2001-02 when Bryce Drew was playing pro basketball and his dad was still the Crusaders' coach.
Valpo used an early 11-0 run to take control and still led 36-25 at halftime.
Then came the bevy of turnovers and Wright State turned the tables on the preseason conference favorite.
The Raiders scored the first five points of the second half and finally tied the score at 40 and again at 42. That's when Arceneaux hit a 3-pointer to give Wright State a 45-42 lead, its first since 3-2. Jerran Young followed with a dunk and when Matt Vest knocked down a 3 with 5:35 to play, Wright State led 50-44.
Drew tried desperately to get his team in sync by calling timeouts and calling plays. At first they didn't respond.
Buggs changed everything in the closing surge.
After Van Wijk hit a short jumper in the paint, Buggs stole the ball and drove in for a layup. He tied the score at 50 by making two free throws with 3:59 to go, then gave Valpo the lead by making 1 of 2 from the free-throw line with 2:53 left. Buggs then found Broekhoff for an open 3 in the right corner to make it 54-50 and the Raiders didn't score again until 8.3 seconds were left. By then, the party was already in full swing.
"I've watched the selection show since I was a little kid," Buggs said. "Now I'm living the dream, just being a part of the show."