Saturday began a new month, but the struggles remained the same for UIC (5-18, 0-9 Horizon). The Flames’ losing streak stretched to 12 games as their bid for a first Horizon League ended well short against Valparaiso (14-10, 6-3), 70-46.
Valparaiso senior LaVonte Dority was the only player to score in double figures, but he dominated with a career-high 33 points on 10-of-15 shooting.
“LaVonte has been extremely focused this whole season, starting with the offseason,” Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew said. “He made tough shots, he created shots. He’s just playing at a high, high level right now.”
The Crusaders entered after an emotional win Wednesday against Green Bay. The Crusaders handed the Phoenix their first Horizon League loss while also snapping the Phoenix’s 12-game winning streak that dated back to Dec. 10.
“I think it was a big test for us to see if we would come in satisfied or still hungry,” Drew said. “I think LaVonte kind of leads that charge with his hunger and his passion. And the other guys followed. UIC could very easily have 4 or 5 wins in conference right now. We know every night we have to be ready to play.”
By the eye test, Valparaiso outplayed UIC from start to finish Saturday. But, the Flames were hanging within five points at 27-22 late in the first half.
Dority, a Chicago native, took over in the half’s final four minutes to extend the Crusaders’ halftime advantage to 36-23.
Dority assisted freshman Alec Peters for a three-pointer. He then snagged a long rebound off a UIC miss and went coast-to-coast for a one-handed dunk. Dority drew a pair of fouls in the final two minutes and made all four free throws. During the period’s final possession, he drilled a three-pointer just before the buzzer.
“It seemed liked every time UIC did get some momentum, LaVonte would come up with just a shot,” Drew said. “He was deep, he was contested. He was just making tough shots.”
Valparaiso’s lead grew to as many as 24 points with 1:28 remaining as Dority continued to put on a show in front of his hometown.
“It was kind of emotional,” Dority said. “It was great to be here.”
Although no other Crusaders stood out on offense, junior forward Vashil Fernandez imposed his will defensively with seven blocked shots and one steal. Fernandez also grabbed seven rebounds.
“I thank God for the great length he gave me,” the 6’10” Fernandez said.
Three players led UIC with eight points apiece.
Senior guard Kelsey Barlow scored his eight on only 3-of-12 shooting, but he also dished out five assists.
Junior guard Marc Brown recorded eight points on 2-of-7 shooting while sophomore forward Jake Wiegand flirted with a double-double. Eight rebounds accompanied Wiegand’s eight points.
The Flames were without senior forward Hayden Humes’ for the third straight game. Humes averages 6.9 points and is an asset because of his versatility on the perimeter.
“The next man has got to step up,” UIC head coach Howard Moore said. “Not having Hayden hurts, but we still got other guys out there that should be hungry and want to get out there and help this team.”
Valparaiso, which won the Horizon League last year and was a No. 14 in the NCAA Tournament, has been gelling recently. The Crusaders have won five of their last six games, tying Cleveland State for second place in the conference.
“We’re definitely coming together,” Fernandez said. “It’s the second half of conference, and we’re buckling down and doing our thing as a team.”
UIC is beginning to look like a lock for last place in the Horizon League. The Flames sit a full three games behind eighth place Detroit, which they already lost to earlier this week.
“I’m not giving up on the season,” Moore said.
UIC begins a three-game road trip Wednesday at first-place Green Bay.