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After Rams Win, Hugs All Around Harrick’s Confident Rhode Island Squad Wraps Up Valparaiso’s Storybook Season

Homer. Bryce. Scott. Drew-by-Drew, Jim Harrick hugged his way down the Valparaiso sideline. Then he came to his son, Jim Jr., a Valpo assistant coach.

“He’d better go to the Final Four,” Jim Jr. said of his father, Rhode Island’s resilient coach. “He’d better not lose now after all this.”

The elder Harrick earned the chance to keep playing, thanks to his Rams’ emotion-packed 74-68 victory over Valparaiso in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals.

Rhode Island, the region’s eighth seed, now has knocked off No. 1 Kansas and tournament darling Valparaiso in consecutive games to reach the final eight for the first time in school history.

Next up for the Rams (25-8): third-seeded Stanford (29-4), which defeated Purdue 67-59 earlier Friday.

“We found a way against Kansas, and we’re going to find a way against Stanford,” Harrick Sr. said. “I hope they look at us and laugh.”

There was no laughter in Valparaiso’s locker room because the 13th-seeded Crusaders’ incredible, improbable NCAA thrill ride ended too soon.

Their fans did their best to extend it another 15 minutes after the final horn, standing and chanting: “We want the team! We want the team!” and “Homer! Ho-mer!” until the players and coaches came back out on the court.

“It made me feel a lot better,” Valparaiso star Bryce Drew said. “In the locker room, we were pretty sad and that made us hold off our tears.”

Antonio Reynolds-Dean scored 16 points and made three big defensive plays down the stretch for Rhode Island, now the lowest seed remaining.

Valparaiso trailed only 64-63 and had the ball with 3-1/2 minutes to go when Drew’s pass was tipped away by Reynolds-Dean, who promptly rebounded a missed Rhode Island shot, scored, was fouled by Drew and completed the three-point play.

Drew missed a 3-pointer and teammate Bill Jenkins grabbed the rebound, but Reynolds-Dean blocked Jenkins’ shot. Preston Murphy then made two free throws to give the Rams a 69-63 lead.

After Valpo’s Jared Nuness made a short jumper, Murphy made two more free throws. Drew followed with a 3-pointer, pulling Valparaiso to 71-68. But after Tyson Wheeler made a foul shot, a leaping Reynolds-Dean altered a shot by Drew, and Luther Clay clinched the Rams’ win with two free throws.