CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mid-December games are often unknown quantities for college basketball teams. Finals require significant time away from the game and practice courts, and coaches hope for – but don’t always get – great results once the break ends.
Charlotte returned to the floor Monday after a 10-day layoff, and while the result wasn’t always perfect, the “1-0” mentality for which the 49ers strive held in the end.
Jordan Shepherd poured in a career-high 27 for the 49ers on 9-of-14 shooting, helping to guide his club to a 67-57 victory over visiting Valparaiso before an announced crowd of 2,740 in Halton Arena.
“(I’m) very pleased with the fact that we were able to come out today and get a ‘W’, especially against a team that is so difficult to guard. If you watch them, their constant movement and motion (appears),” said Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez. “There are some lessons to be learned, of course. We’ll watch the film, we’ll celebrate the things we did well, and we’ll continue to grow.”
Valparaiso’s Donovan Clay tallied the game’s first points with a left-side triple, which only served to ignite Charlotte on both ends of the floor. The 49ers forced five turnovers in the first segment of the contest, converting those miscues into six of the 13 points in an 13-0 burst over a three-minute span. The Crusaders then held Charlotte without a point for greater than two minutes, reducing a double-digit 49er margin to a single possession.
Charlotte (5-4) worked its lead back as high as seven points in what became a tussle over the latter part of the first half. Jordan Shepherd tallied his 10th point of the game on a jumper as the period neared its end, giving the 49ers a 35-30 advantage at the interval. 22 of those 35 49er points came in the paint, as the home side attempted just five first-half threes. Forward Amidou Bamba proved a prime beneficiary of that stat, scoring 10 of his own in the stanza.
Valparaiso (6-5) hung within striking distance of the 49ers, but ran cold as the second half wore on. The Crusaders endured a stretch in which they hit just 2-of-10 tries from the field and went without a bucket for greater than five minutes after a Mileek McMillan layup at the 7:45 mark knifed the Charlotte lead to 56-50. Eron Gordon cut through the Charlotte traffic in the lane to bank in a try off the window with just over two-and-a-half to play, then a Javon Freeman-Liberty take dropped the margin to seven.
The Crusaders had a chance to cut the game to a single possession near the one-minute mark, as they forced an errant 49er three-point try at the end of the shot clock. Freeman-Liberty’s attempted triple seconds later struck the front of the rim and backboard, then fell harmlessly into the arms of Jahmir Young. The 49ers were then able to salt away the game at the free throw line, knocking down four free throws in the final 54 seconds to provide the final margin.
Charlotte’s defense limited the hot-shooting Valpo club in the closing twenty, holding the Crusaders to 41 percent from the field and 18 percent from distance following a 50 percent effort from both in the opening period.
“They were (shooting) 50 percent from the three-point line in the first half, and that’s something we addressed at halftime,” said Sanchez. “I’m definitely pleased with the way we defended. That’s a very dangerous team. They can shoot it well from the perimeter, their point guard is electric in the open floor, and their bigs are very skilled. It was definitely a challenge for us today.”
Shepherd canned all but one of his seven second-half tries, recording his career-best finish off a 17-point second half. The Oklahoma transfer has a dynamic role in the 49er offense, which he freely acknowledges.
“(When the shot clock) gets under 10 seconds, usually it’s in my hands to be able to make a play for me or one of my teammates,” said Shepherd. “Tonight, it just happened to be me.”
Freshman guard Jahmir Young joined Shepherd in double figures, finishing with 14 points and eight helpers. Bamba finished with 10 in 19 minutes of play. The 49ers took just 15 second-half shots, hitting nine. Charlotte shot 50 percent (22-for-44) on the night.
Valparaiso got 17 from Freeman-Liberty and 11 from Clay. The Crusaders shot 45.3 percent (24-for-53) in the contest.
The Crusaders venture north on Interstate 85 to play at High Point University’s Millis Center at 7:00 Wednesday evening. That game will be streamed over ESPN+. Charlotte remains in Halton Arena to face off with Maryland-Eastern Shore Thursday night. That game is also slated for a 7:00 tip.