The Qwest Center crowd is a notoriously late-arriving one. On Monday night, though, almost everyone was in their seats well before tip — and with good reason. Everyone wanted to see what would happen when Dana Altman led his team out of the visiting tunnel.
When Oregon’s players took the court, along with a couple of assistants including Brian Fish, there were audible boos, the kind normally reserved for Wichita State and Gregg Marshall (or Southern Illinois and Bruce Weber back in Altman’s heydey). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy seeing that. But it did make me wonder if perhaps Altman was in for a nastier reception than I hoped he’d get.
Just before 7:00, a thunderous roar went up from the northwest corner of the arena just above the visitor’s tunnel. The noise spread to other corners of the arena as people realized what was happening: Emerging from the tunnel was Dana Altman, head coach of the Oregon Ducks, architect of Creighton’s basketball renaissance. A sustained standing ovation followed, as Creighton fans were finally able to get closure on the Altman Era the best way possible: by thanking their coach of 16 years. It was the moment they were denied eleven months earlier by Altman’s departure under the cover of darkness, with no press conference, no public statement and no explanation. And it was a credit to the Creighton fans that they forgave the manner with which he left, and instead thanked him for what had preceded it.
The ovation continued as Altman walked down the sideline to shake hands with the new era of Creighton hoops: Greg McDermott and staff. The longest handshake, by far, came between the two head coaches, and it seemed like a symbolic passing of the torch — the man responsible for resuscitating the program in the mid-nineties giving his stamp of approval to the man now charged with building on that foundation. As the Oregon players were introduced, the crowd fell silent, but when the coaches were introduced, another standing ovation for Altman followed (though, again, audible boos and catcalls were directed at Fish). And then…the house lights dropped, the spotlights fired up, it was time to introduce the Creighton players, and one had to wonder what Altman thought of the spectacle. Famous for eschewing such theatrics and discouraging anything that put one player above the team during his tenure on the Hilltop, he was now witnessing first-hand the very pregame stylings he refused to allow.
Each of the Creighton players received loud cheers, as they normally do. But when Greg McDermott was introduced, he got the loudest cheer of all. It was obviously louder, and perceptibly louder than either of the ovations for Altman. It was almost as though the fans were making sure their cheers for Altman weren’t misinterpreted as longing for their old coach — that they like their current guy just fine, thank you very much. It was a louder ovation than Mac received before his first game in November. It was almost like, now that there was finally proper closure on the Altman Era, Mac could fully be embraced. A great, great moment.
Then, the players headed to the circle, Altman’s jacket came off, and it was time to play basketball. Altman had been thanked, and now Jays fans there to see their team win would treat him as they would any other visiting coach. The signs came out. Oh, the signs!
Top Five Signs of the Night, as chosen by me, Max Univers:
5) “Brice Nengsu will make you forget the name Rodney Buford” (If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand)
4) “Gordon Bombay > Dana Altman” (Gordon Bombay is the head coach from The Mighty Ducks movies, played with gusto by Emilio Estavez.)
3) “Welcome Home, Dana! Dinner’s at 7. We’re having duck!”
2) “Put these refs back in the zebra pen!” (Love the double entendre in this one from SignGuy.)
1) “Doug McDermott > Jordan Altman” (See the note following number five)
The players clearly fed off the energy in the building, and at the first media timeout it was 21-13 Jays. When you think about the number of games where they struggled to get 21 in a half, its staggering to see them score 21 in five minutes with the same personnel. Included in that flurry were three long-range bombs from Jahenns Manigat, the Canadian Red Bull, and one each from Kaleb Korver and Doug McDermott. As the game went into its first timeout, the Qwest Center was as loud as its been all season long, and it looked like Creighton might run the Ducks right out of the building.
Ah, but Creighton fans should know better than to count out a Dana Altman coached team, shouldn’t they? The Ducks adjusted, ratcheted up the press, hit some threes of their own, and whittled the lead down to two at the under-eight timeout. The half ended with the Jays up 44-37, having shot 59.7% from the floor and making 6-11 from behind the arc. Most impressive? 13 assists on 16 made baskets, showing an unselfishness with the basketball and an ability to find open shooters that hasn’t always been present this year — but has been in the CBI. Antoine Young had six assists by himself in the first half! Anyone wondering how the Jays have been so much more impressive in this tourney than they were during the season need only look at that stat.
Another interesting note: in the first half, Young played all 20 minutes, Manigat played 18 minutes, McDermott played 17 and Echenique played 15. Mac was clearly content to ride the hot hands, and not substitute simply for the sake of substituting.
The second half began with another flurry — this time, a 14-4 Creighton run leading into the first media timeout that started with a thunderous dunk from Echenique and was punctuated by Jahenns Manigat diving on the floor to create a turnover, and after stealing the ball, throwing it to a streaking Doug McDermott who drew a foul at the basket. The latter play showed hustle, heart and determination, and the crowd ate it up. So did Greg McDermott, who could barely contain his enthusiasm, running halfway onto the court — pumping his fist, jumping up in the air, offering encouragement to his freshman guard. Mac’s enthusiasm whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and once again it looked like the Jays would run the Ducks out of the building.
Incidentally, if you’re scoring at home, that’s 35 of the Jays 84 points in the first four-minute segment of each half. It was something we rarely saw over the course of the year, particularly out of halftime, and it may have been the big key to the win. Altman said as much to the World-Herald afterwards. “It was great starts, there was a lot of energy and the crowd was really into it. Those two stretches were probably the difference in the game.”
But once again, Dana and the Ducks crept back into the game. Trailing 76-65 with 3:56 to go, they rattled off a 7-0 run in under 90 seconds to cut it to a four-point deficit. Things were getting tense. After making the inevitable free throws to build the lead back out to seven, Jay-R Strowbridge, the former Husker, nailed a three-pointer with 1:32 to go. 79-75 Creighton. A little of the air was out of the building. Creighton fans had seen this script before — not just the team blowing a lead, but a Dana Altman coached team hitting a bunch of late threes to steal a game. Altman called his last timeout, the Ducks’ last one — another script Jays fans had seen before, with him calling timeouts early and having none left for a potential end-of-game scenario.
Out of the timeout, Josh Jones took what was, admittedly, an ill-advised three pointer early in the shot clock…the classic “No, no, no, nooooo….YESSS!” shot after it went in. Say this for the kid, he’s not afraid to shoot it.
Nursing a lead, with under a minute to go, Antoine Young uncharacteristically turned it over, and E.J. Singler raced down court for what could have been a fastbreak bucket. Instead, Doug McDermott beat him there and swatted away his shot attempt. Oregon fans (perhaps rightfully so) will tell you it was a foul. Since it was called a block, our official position at White & Blue Review will be that it was a block. Ha! Two free throws on the other end from Manigat sealed the victory, and one of the wildest and most exciting games of the season was in the books.
Coming into the CBI, it was hard for a lot of fans to get excited about the tournament. No one goes into a season with a goal of playing in the CBI. But these four games have been the funnest home games of the season, by far, and might be the best four-game stretch of basketball the Jays have played in two years. They’ve certainly been a blast to watch, and regardless of what happens in Eugene, I think Jays fans will have fond memories of the 2011 postseason — and that’s something that seemed pretty far-fetched following a demoralizing semifinal loss to Missouri State in St. Louis.