First for everything
Southern Utah ends Valpo's grip on automatic bid
Updated: Wednesday March 07, 2001 7:54 AM
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) -- Southern Utah forward Fred House knelt at midcourt and pounded the floor.
Jeff Monaco raced to the bench to hug a teammate. And head coach Bill Evans proclaimed that even though he couldn't dance, he was ready to as Southern Utah beat Valparaiso 62-59 Tuesday night in the Mid-Continent Conference championship game.
The title gives the Thunderbirds their first NCAA tournament bid.
"Obviously, I'm extremely elated," Evans said. "We came out and played like champions. It was a great game."
Especially considering what the Thunderbirds accomplished.
Southern Utah ended Valparaiso's six-year reign as conference tournament champions and snapped the Crusaders' 17-game winning streak in tournament play. The Thunderbirds also did it in a hostile environment, just a two-hour drive from Valparaiso.
It couldn't have been much better for Southern Utah.
"It was a special thing for us, we were just running around like chickens with our heads cut off," said House, the tournament MVP. "It was a great feeling to have beaten a great team."
The game went almost exactly according to the Thunderbirds' script, with their four seniors accounting for 47 points and 10 of the 13 assists.
Leading the way were House, who finished with 24 points, and Jeff Monaco, the conference player of the year who finished with 17 points. Together, they laid the foundation for the victory.
House got the Thunderbirds started as they built a 33-21 halftime lead. He closed out the Crusaders with two free throws with 6.7 seconds left.
"Fred's an exceptional athlete," Evans said. "He's more of a scorer than a shooter, even though he hit three-of-four from 3-point range."
Monaco, meanwhile, was the steadying force for Southern Utah.
Valparaiso's Lubos Barton opened the second half by hitting six of his first seven shots, including four 3-pointers, as he rallied the Crusaders from a 15-point deficit.
With 8:51 to go, Raitis Grafs dropped in a layup to give Valparaiso a 49-48 lead. Barton finished with 22 points -- all in the second half.
"Lubos has tremendous passion and he hates to lose," Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew said. "He was tired, but he found energy in the second half."
Monaco answered with a basket and followed with a three-point play to give the Thunderbirds a 53-49 lead.
Valparaiso got two free throws from Grafs and two more Barton to tie the score at 53.
But Monaco again hit a long 3-pointer and House followed that with another 3-pointer to make it 59-53.
"I'd had a rough tournament, but I started feeling it a little bit," Monaco said. "After I hit that long shot, during the timeout, I asked my teammates which line it was. They told me to scoot in a little bit."
Southern Utah struggled to close out the Crusaders -- until Dwayne Toatley threw the ball away and House hit the free throws with 6.7 seconds left.
Barton missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and the Thunderbirds started their celebration.
"I can't dance," Evans said, "but I'll go anyway."