In the end, it’s Valparaiso that’s going to the NCAA Tournament and the Phoenix are again left wondering how close they really were.
“Yeah, it’s set in. We just lost,” guard Keifer Sykes said following the 54-44 loss in the Horizon League Championship game. “In mid-major basketball you have to win your conference tournament to get the automatic bid or you have to win a ton of games. And we did that but we still needed more wins.”
As they expected, UW-Green Bay came out confident and seemingly resolute in a hostile environment. They took a 25-18 lead into intermission. A single half stood between them and their first chance in March Madness since 1996.
“It’s a game of runs, a game of momentum and we just couldn’t get over the hump of momentum,” head coach Brian Wardle said. The Phoenix anticipated a push from the Crusaders who also clinched the automatic bid in 2013. Valparaiso harassed Sykes and forced UW-Green Bay into shooting 25% from the field, including 1-of-11 from beyond the arc, in the second half.
“That’s not going to get it done, on the road against a team like Valpo; it just isn’t,” he continued.
The Phoenix dried up and a spell of costly mistakes – over an eight-minute span UW-Green Bay didn’t make a single shot and recorded six turnovers. What was as large as a seven point advantage rapidly switched to an to seven point deficit.
“We just wanted to keep grinding but like coach said, we hit a wall especially offensively,” Sykes said.
The standout senior finished with just 14 points but was frustrated by double-teams and inconsistent play that has haunted the Phoenix all year.
“They have that record for a reason. They’re at home and they always play well here,” Wardle admitted. “We just needed to be a little bit tighter, a little bit smarter and take care of that basketball and maybe the outcome could have been different.”