EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – SIUE showed its strong side in the first half Tuesday against Valparaiso at the First Community Arena at the Vadalabene Center.
Then the visiting Crusaders went to work in the second half in reversing a deficit, posting an 89-76 victory and improving to 2-1. SIUE dropped to 1-2.
"It was a tale of two halves," SIUE Head Coach Brain Barone said. "It's a lot of fun coaching these guys because they have a lot of energy. We had a lot of hustle in the first half, but not as much in the second half. So we have to be better at sustaining our energy."
The Cougars made 20 of 34 first-half shots and enjoyed a 14-0 spree at one point to grab a 46-44 halftime lead. The Crusaders considered themselves fortunate they were within striking distance of them at the break.
"They (Cougars) took it to us at the start of the game," Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. "They brought the fight. But I thought we locked in defensively the second half."
Offensively, too. Sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty trigged the Crusaders' comeback by scoring 18 of his career-best 30 points in the second half. The 6-foot, 3-inch sophomore guard, nephew of former University of Illinois star Marcus Liberty, also snared a game-best 13 rebounds.
"It's the best game I've had so far," Freeman-Liberty said.
The Cougars had their own share of standouts. Guard Tyresse Williford led the way with 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Brandon Jackson contributed 17 points and six rebounds. Cam Williams netted 13 points, Zeke Moore popped in 11 points and Mike Adewunmi collected a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
"The good thing about Mike is that he stayed in shape all summer and he came to ready to roll," Barone said of the Texas JUCO recruit.
SIUE's shooting sagged a bit early in the second half when the Cougars made just 4 of 17 shots and saw Valpo surge ahead 69-54 with less than 10 minutes to play. Overall, SIUE hit on 32 of 68 shots, was 4-for-18 from 3-point range, made 8 of 16 free throws and got outrebounded 44-36. Yet the Cougars fought back and slice the deficit to single digits late in the game.
"When I had to sit down (early in the second half with foul problems), it was probably a game changer," Williford said. "But I like our fight. We want to get better and better and I know we will bounce back."
Barone saw plenty of good signs, too.
"We came out and played hard and we have to continue to do that," he said. "We're establishing a culture here where we want to play with energy and then keep playing with more of it. We are getting there."
Valpo's Nick Robinson (19 points) and Mileek McMillen (15 points) complemented Freeman-Liberty's production and 6-7 freshman Donovan Clay of Alton had five points in his first start.
"It was a great environment and it felt good," Clay said of returning home. "It was a lot of fun."
The Cougars hit the road for a Saturday afternoon contest at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas and then play Monday, Nov. 18 at South Dakota. SIUE doesn't return home until Saturday, Nov. 23, when Northern Illinois comes calling at 2 p.m.