VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Bryce Drew and Valparaiso are heading back to the NCAA tournament.
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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," Drew said when asked to compare going as a player 15 years ago and now as a coach. "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.
They won despite scoring just six points in the first 13 minutes of the second half and committing a season-high 25 turnovers.
"We got ourselves in a little bit of a hole, we turned the ball over but we found a way to win," Broekhoff said. "That's what's different between this year's team and last year's. We find ways to win, even sometimes when we probably shouldn't."
For the Crusaders, this journey was two years in the making.
For Wright State (21-12), the nation's 11th youngest team and one of only five schools that did not start a senior all season, it was another chance to defy the odds.
After being picked last in the league's preseason poll, the Raiders finished in the upper half of the Horizon League and then upset defending tourney champ Detroit in Saturday's semifinals on a buzzer-beating shot from behind the backboard. And after going more than nine minutes without a basket in the first half Tuesday and looking lost at times, Wright State nearly pulled off the impossible by winning on Valpo's home court after getting swept during the regular season.
But the Raiders couldn't close it out against a senior-dominated team that was playing in front of a sell-out crowd that was poised to party.
Reggie Arceneaux scored 14 points for the Raiders (21-12). Nobody else reached double figures for Wright State.
"The game was won by them in the first minutes and in the last five minutes and that shows their experience, their basketball I.Q.," said Wright State's Billy Donlon, this year's Horizon League coach of the year.
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."