I’ll be the first to admit I turned on MVC TV last Wednesday evening ready to watch a train wreck. With Wichita State still in a race for the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship, and with the Bluejays destine for a middle-of-the-pack finish, I feared the Koch Arena fans would feast on the road weary Jays. So many times Greg McDermott’s Creighton team has been within a few possessions of a road victory, but not since January 9 have the Jays picked up a win away from Omaha.
After playing the Shockers close for about 25 minutes at Qwest Center, the Bluejays went cold and the Shox heated up en route to a 14-point win more than a month ago. Since then, Gregg Marshall’s team has had its struggles at home, while continuing to win by comfortable margins on the road. The Jays haven’t lost in Omaha since dropping that game to the Shox, but they’ve been shut out on the road thanks to turnovers, cold shooting at times, and the inability to make the big play.
These symptoms haven’t plagued the Bluejays in every road game, mind you. Instead, one or two pop up at a give time — and usually when the Jays can least afford them to. In a season filled with plenty of what-might-have-beens, Wednesday’s 67-65 loss at Wichita may have been the most painful. The reason? The Jays stood toe-to-toe with a team full of better athletes, as the visitors, and kept the Koch Arena faithful fairly quiet until the last 30 seconds. The Jays knocked down shots, especially in the paint, shooting 53% from the field. CU held its own on the glass, finishing virtually even in the rebounding battle against a WSU team that is among the nation’s best in rebounding margin. And, besides the 15 turnovers, they were more patient in their offensive sets, working methodically to get the ball into the low post and work from the inside out.
And because of these efforts, with 30 seconds to play and after more than a dozen lead changes, Creighton had a chance to go up for good. Gregory Echenique made a basket with about 70 seconds to play, and then Kaleb Korver rebounded a J.T. Durley miss to give the Jays the ball with the score tied and just under 50 seconds left. After a CU timeout, Doug McDermott received the ball and was fouled by Aaron Ellis before he could attempt a shot. McDermott calmed stepped to the free throw line for a one-and-one opportunity, but missed the first attempt. Graham Hatch rebounded the miss for WSU, Marshall passed on the almost obligatory timeout, and Joe Ragland penetrated on the baseline before turning and finding Ellis cutting behind McDermott in the lane for the go-ahead layup. The clock just under 2 seconds. Of course it did.
McDermott’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer banged hard off the back iron, and the Bluejays had another last second road loss at one of the league leaders’ buildings. After preparing myself for a potential bludgeoning, I wasn’t sure during the immediate aftermath whether it would have hurt more to have watched a blowout. This is a good group of Jays that, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to seal the deal on the road. Their average margin of defeat in 6 Valley road losses is 3.6 points. They were in every away game, really suffering only one bad loss (at Bradley). But champions find a way to win when faced with a difficult situation, and for the second consecutive season the Creighton Bluejays are not league champions. (But, then again, neither are the Wichita State Shockers.)
But that doesn’t mean they can’t win a title in Saint Louis. I’m sure I’ll spend all week coaxing myself to believe the Bluejays have a shot to win Arch Madness. But is it really that farfetched to believe? They’ve been in every Valley road game, with their two closest road losses coming against the top two teams in the league. And Saturday, on Senior Day, the Jays found a way to revenge a difficult road loss at Northern Iowa. Since sharing a regular season title with UNI in 2008-09, Creighton has not fared well against the Panthers. Coming into Saturday’s home finale, the Bluejays had dropped three straight to Ben Jacobsen’s team, and both squads already knew that they would see each other again during the second quarterfinal game in Saint Louis next Friday.
Whether or not the two teams ran their full compliment of offensive and defensive sets yesterday is up for discussion. What is known, though, is that the Bluejays battled through early foul trouble and a terrible first half to hand the Panthers a loss heading into Arch Madness. Creighton’s most important player, Antoine Young, picked up 2 fouls within the first 5 minutes of the game, and the junior point guard went to the bench for the final 25 minutes of the half. Echenique joined him shortly thereafter, as the starting center logged only 7 minutes during the first half.
Without the team’s court general and enforcer on the floor, the Jays struggled. CU turned the ball over 7 times, lost the rebounding battle at half 16-11, and looked generally uninspired in what amounted to a tune-up game against a team the Jays will play again in less than a week. But is that really an excuse for missing free throws, throwing the ball away, and not guarding the paint? The Panthers outscored the Bluejays 18-8 in the low post in the first half, without Lucas O’Rear on the court.
I’m not privy to what was said at halftime, but I’m sure Greg McDermott reminded his guys they were playing for their seniors, and playing for numerous streaks the program is proud of. But maybe it was simpler than that. Perhaps it is as easy as telling his guys that Northern Iowa has no one who can consistently defend Creighton’s post players, nor score consistently against them. The Jays came out of halftime, immediately fed Echenique the ball in the paint, and he scored and was fouled. Sure, he missed the free throw — I’m honestly surprised the Jays shot 45% from the free throw line for the game, as it seemed so much worse than that sitting in the stands — but during the next trip for UNI the big Venezuelan blocked a shot attempt by Kwadzo Ahelegbe and the Jays turned it into a 3-pointer by Young on the other end thanks to the rebound, the push, and the assist by Jahenns Manigat.
And after starting the game scoreless for the first 4 minutes, Northern Iowa couldn’t buy a basket to begin the second half either. The Jays turned a 28-24 deficit into a 35-28 lead less than 4 minutes into the second stanza. And the lead would grow to 13 with just more than 6 minutes to play, before a 16-7 UNI run would pull the Panthers to within 4 points with less than 20 seconds to play. The Jays would hang on, thanks to better ball control (just 4 turnovers in the second half), better rebounding effort (a 20-17 margin on the glass), and better shooting (54% from the field). With Young on the court and playing within himself as the point guard, though, the Jays found a way to recapture their scoring touch down low. The Bluejays took advantage of their size and depth in the frontcourt and flipped the points in the paint battle back in their favor to the tune of a 18-6 difference.
And with that, the senior class left Omaha winners. They lead the rest of the Jays to Saint Louis as the #5 seed, where they are capable of beating any of the teams ahead of them in the standings. Three of Creighton’s five starters have never appeared at Arch Madness, so it will surely be a new experience for many of the guys Greg McDermott much rely on to try and win the school’s first Valley tournament title since 2007. But after dropping so many close games this season, a repetitive outcome that surely wears on the team as they fight and fight but come up short, perhaps this team is due to break through from the side of close losses to the light of winning a title. The mantra one game at a time surely applies, and the win against Northern Iowa in the season finale can’t hurt Creighton’s chances of winning their first game amongst the madness in the Gateway City next week.