I woke up Saturday worried about a Creighton home game against Indiana State for the first time since my freshman year of college.
Back in January 1999, the Sycamores beat the Bluejays at the Civic Auditorium 70-69. Rodney Buford scored 25 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished 6 assists. But even a monster night from Rodzilla couldn’t overcome the clutch play of Nate Green, Michael Menser, and Djibril Kante.
Indiana State hasn’t won in Omaha since then. Twelve years later, I’m no longer sleeping on a couch. I actually have money in my checking account. Creighton owns 6 wins in Terre Haute. And the Sycamores still don’t have a W at Qwest Center Omaha.
A few hours before the Bluejays and Trees tangled at the Q Saturday afternoon, I spent some time at the site of the last ISU win in Omaha. My future sister-in-law celebrated her commencement from Bellevue University; the event took place in the hallowed halls of the Civic. I couldn’t help but think about that last CU loss to Indiana State at home, and whether that’s what awaited me a few hours later. The way the past few weeks have played out for Greg McDermott’s first Creighton team, I would not have been shocked if the Sycamores left the Phone Booth with a victory.
Confidence seems to be a key phrase for this year’s Bluejays. Despite close losses at Northern Iowa and at Missouri State and at Indiana State, the players and coaches maintain a level of self-assurance publicly that belies where they stand in the Valley race — middle of the pack. How many close losses and mental mistakes can one team endure before the confidence erodes? How many times can players avoid the paper and the message boards and the blogosphere, and instead drink up the doubt that inevitably arises as losses accrue?
Face it: Saturday’s game against Indiana State was Creighton’s most important of the season, 23 games in. So perhaps that’s what made the outcome so remarkable. Since losing that game in 1999, Creighton’s wins over Indiana State have come by an average of 11.7 points. A 14-point win against the Sycamores shouldn’t shock people, but with the Bluejays staring up at the Trees in the Valley standings this matchup had more of a back-and-forth, nail-biter promise than that of a blowout. But the Bluejays put ISU in the position to play catch-up early, allowing CU to play free and easy while watching their opponent try and fight back, to make it close.
The game began strangely enough, with players and coaches and fans ditching royal blue for blazing pink. Shoes, t-shirts, neck ties, you name it; to raise awareness about breast cancer, Bluejay fans and players, coaches and administrators embraced the theme of the afternoon. Then the tweets and texts started pouring in: freshman Jahenns Manigat would start in place of Josh Jones, who was late for a morning meeting. Just a few games after entering the starting lineup and giving the team a boost of energy, Jones would have to bring his electric smile and sometimes-erratic jump shot off the bench again. And the freshman? Manigat? No one knew how he’d respond to the sudden promotion. He tended to get sped up when filling in a minute or two here for Antoine Young or Kaleb Korver or Darryl Ashford to this point in his first season. He spent more of his energy working the team into a frenzy during the pregame pump-up circle. He had to resign his spot to Wayne Runnels; Manigat needed to make an impact.
Jahenns struggled offensively in the first half. He missed all four of his shots from the field but hit a couple of free throws. He grabbed a couple of rebounds and recorded an assist. Fellow guard Young scored 9 points in the first 20 minutes, as he helped the Jays to an early 11-point lead.
But it was Doug McDermott who controlled the first half for Creighton. In 18 minutes of floor time, the freshman scored 16 points on 5 of 7 shooting from the field. He knocked down 2 3-pointers, 4 free throws, grabbed 5 rebounds, dished 3 assists, and didn’t commit a turnover. He even swiped a steal from Jake Odum, who entered the day leading the Valley in assist-to-turnover ratio in league games.
Behind McDermott, Young, and Jones, who played 13 first-half minutes and hit a couple of 3s after not starting, the Bluejays took 7-point lead into the break. But 90 seconds into the second half, the Sycamores cut the CU lead to 4 and had the home fans facing what some thought to be inevitable — yet another close Valley game, likely to be decided by a few possessions late in the second half.
What transpired during the next 10 minutes of game time gave those same fans hope that some how, some way, this team may in fact have turned those late, close losses into learning experiences. And, you know, learned from them. The Bluejays outscored Indiana State 27-12 during that time, pushing a 36-32 margin to a 63-44 lead with 8 minutes to play. Young got into foul trouble, for what seemed to be the first time all season (at least, in any game of significance). But instead of wilting, Manigat and the other guards did well while the Jays’ court leader sat on the bench. Young still scored 19 points, making 10 of a season-high 12 free throw attempts. He still finished with more assists (4) than turnovers (3). But more importantly, the kid got a chance to catch his breath. His 28 minutes marked his fewest amount of court time since he played 27 minutes against Kennesaw State during Thanksgiving weekend. He effectively played the entire games at Missouri State and Northern Iowa.
Meanwhile, McDermott kept making his case for a spot on the league’s All-Valley team. He finished with 25 points and 7 rebounds (similar numbers to those of Buford’s in that 1999 loss, right?). It was his second-highest point total during his short collegiate career, and the third time he’s posted 20 or more points in a game this season. He failed to grab 8 or more rebounds for the first time since snagging only 3 in Creighton’s Valley opener at Illinois State. But he set a career high with 4 assists and committed only 1 turnover in 33 minutes of action. Through 11 Valley games, he’s tied with Missouri State’s Kyle Weems for third in the league in scoring (16.0 ppg) and is in a virtual tie with Southern Illinois’ Mamadou Seck for first in rebounding (8.5 rpg).
And sure, not everything was as rosy Saturday as the pink shades in the arena would have you believe. The officiating was … how do I put this kindly? Inconsistent. (If by inconsistent you mean illness inducing.) Gregory Echenique played poorly for the second consecutive game, committing 4 more turnovers after making 5 such miscues at Northern Iowa. He scored just 3 points (his lowest total since making only one shot in 6 minutes against Drake), although he did manage to bring in 7 rebounds. But the turnovers — especially the offensive fouls — are killing his production on that end of the court. Teams in the Valley don’t have many options against Echenique, but his turnovers offer opponents an equalizer. You can bet the coaching staffs for those squads remaining on Creighton’s schedules are paying attention to how the quicker, albeit weaker, post players for UNI and Indiana State were able to draw fouls against Gregory. It may be their only way to stop him from going for 12 and 8 a night.
The Bluejays, though, are 6-5, hardly setting the Valley ablaze with their record. But they’re proving to be a tough out, especially on the road. And with an immediate schedule that seems favorable based on their opponents’ collective win-loss records in conference play, the Jays are in great position to make a run. Three of Creighton’s next five games are at home, against teams with a combined 13-20 record in Valley play. CU’s two roadies are against Bradley (0-11) and Drake (3-8). Thus, the Bluejays should be favored for the better part of the next month. Regardless of what happens, you know it will be an exciting few weeks in the Valley.