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A strong finish and a fast start led ninth-seeded Valparaiso and seventh-seeded Loyola to opening-round victories Thursday at the Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament at the TaxSlayer Center.

The Crusaders rallied from a halftime deficit to top eighth-seeded Indiana State 79-77 and advance to a quarterfinal match-up today with top-seeded Drake in the tourney opener.

The Ramblers moved to a quarterfinal game against second-seeded Missouri State by building a 26-point lead late in the third quarter before holding off 10th-seeded Evansville 90-80.

Valparaiso 79, Indiana State 77: A lay-in by Addison Stoller with 3 minutes, 4 seconds remaining broke a 71-71 tie and fueled a run of six straight points which gave Valparaiso enough of a cushion to hold off Indiana State.

The Crusaders fought their way back into the game after falling behind 20-7 late in the first quarter, pulling within 35-30 by halftime and taking their first lead of the game at 50-49 on a Meredith Hamlet 3-point basket with 2:50 left in the third quarter.

"We never gave up on ourselves," said Hamlet, who led Valparaiso with a 25-point performance. "We continued to play our game, continued to fight."

First-year Crusaders coach Mary Evans was surprised by her team’s 5-of-18 start from the field in the opening quarter, a slow start Valparaiso answered by hitting 16-of-22 shots in the second half.

"We shot the ball like we’re capable of shooting it after the first quarter," Evans said. "We didn’t look like ourselves early, but the shots started to fall."

Indiana State struggled to deal with that.

"When you don’t defend anybody, it’s difficult to win games," first-year Sycamores coach Vicki Hall said.

Indiana State pulled within the final margin with on a Regan Wentland layup with 10 seconds remaining but never got a chance to take a last shot after turning the ball over following a steal by Tamara Lee.

Ashli O’Neal and Lee led the Sycamores (11-19) with 26 and 25 points, respectively, while Hamlet was part of a starting five for the Crusaders (8-23) which all finished in double figures.

Loyola 90, Evansville 80: Loyola used its transition game to get the fast start it was looking for against Evansville.

The Ramblers opened a 24-11 lead after one quarter and shot 58.7 percent through three to build a lead which reached 67-41 on a Jasmine Covington jumper late in the third quarter.

The fourth quarter belonged to the Purple Aces who, after scoring 46 points through three quarters, scored 34 points in the final 10 and pulled within 87-80 on a Brooke Bishop 3-pointer with :48 remaining.

"We played three quarters of pretty good basketball. The fourth? Not so much," Loyola coach Kate Achter said.

The start, though, was what the Ramblers (13-17) needed to advance.

"We came out with a lot of energy and attacked the way we wanted to offensively," said Abby O’Connor, who led five Ramblers in double figures with a 22-point, 10-rebound effort.

Covington, who finished with 16 points, suggested Loyola may have gotten too comfortable with the size of its third-quarter lead.

"We didn’t get out and defend the way we needed to," she said.

Evansville coach Matt Ruffing appreciated the way his team fought, knocking down eight of its 13 3-point baskets in the second half.

"It was a rough first half, but my players, they came out in the second half, a 34-point quarter, and played the way we expected," Ruffing said.

The Purple Aces (4-26) were led by a 23-point game from Kerri Gasper, 20 points from Marley Miller and 17 from Bishop.

Hittner named Valley’s best

Drake junior Becca Hittner was named as the recipient of the Jackie Stiles MVC Player of the Year Award during a ceremony between games Thursday during the opening day of competition at the Missouri Valley women’s basketball tournament.

A three-time first-team all-conference selection, the 6-foot guard from Urbandale, Iowa, helped lead the Bulldogs to their third straight Missouri Valley regular season title by leading the league in scoring at 19.9 points per game.

Missouri State coach Kellie Harper was selected by her peers as the Missouri Valley coach of the year, a first in her six seasons as the Lady Bears’ coach.

The conference also recognized TeTe Maggett of Illinois State as its newcomer of the year, Sammie Bachrodt of Drake as its defensive player of the year, Lasha Petree of Bradley as both its sixth player of the year and freshman of the year and Sara Rhine of Drake as its scholar-athlete of the year.

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