Let’s start with a serious question. Midway through Greg McDermott’s first season at Creighton, which did you think you’d see first: Dana Altman return to the Qwest Center with his Oregon Ducks, ready to play against a team the majority of which he recruited and coached, or the Bluejays score 82 or more points in four consecutive games? Remember, death is not an option.
Entering the College Basketball Invitational tournament, the Bluejays had put 80 points or more on the scoreboard four times in McDermott’s first year as CU head coach. And say what you will about the defense (or lack thereof) in the CBI to this point, but for a streaky shooting team like this year’s Jays squad to hang more than 80 on for straight opponents is cause for celebration on its own.
But add to that development the fact that the primary weapons contributing to this offensive onslaught return next season, and it is hard not to get giddy with excitement about what the immediate future may hold for CU hoops. Sure, we’ve been here before, seemingly on the precipice above a “sure thing” (see: the 2009-2010 season). But something just seems different this time.
For better or worse, perhaps that’s because it isn’t Dana Altman on the home bench. During Altman’s 16 years at Creighton, fans grew accustom to every facet of his role as head coach, both on and off the court. But McDermott’s regime is something new, and people like new. They like exciting. And again, regardless of the lack of defensive focus, Creighton’s CBI games have been exciting.
Monday night’s event was no exception, considering the added spark of welcoming Altman, Kevin McKenna, and Brian Fish — all former CU coaches (and, in the case of McKenna, one of the all-time great Creighton players) — to the visitor’s bench. It is hard enough to get “high-major” teams to visit the Qwest Center, so whenever a football power school comes to play Creighton in hoops people flock to watch the Jays. But to have the most successful coach in CU history come back less than a year after he left for Eugene? You can’t write that script, and the 12,000-plus packed into the Phone Booth appreciated the turn of events.
The last time there was a buzz among the Qwest Center crowd before a game started, aside from when fans were buzzed one dollar beers back in January for Wichita State’s trip to Omaha, was when Kentucky came to town for the NIT in March 2009. That game, featuring one of the most successful programs in collegiate basketball history and led by All-American Jodie Meeks, ended in heartbreak for Jays fans. But from the opening few minutes Monday evening, it seemed the script may flip.
The offensive outburst displayed by the Bluejays during the CBI continued Monday night. The Jays were up 19-13 before they missed a shot, and a Josh Jones 3-pointer at the 12:50 mark of the first half gave CU a 10-point lead. Creighton took a 7-point lead into the locker room at halftime, shooting 59% during the first 20 minutes. Overall, the Jays shot better than 50% from the field (55%) for the fourth consecutive game, and better than 47% from 3-point range (47.4%) for third time in four CBI games.
But for as well as CU shot the ball in the first half, Oregon did the same. The Ducks hit 50% of their shots, and 46% of their 3-pointers. Maybe CBI organizers make the teams sign contracts limiting their defensive prowess for the sake of attendance figures and fan engagement? So it wasn’t a surprise, then, when seconds into the second half the teams exchanged points in the paint courtesy of a Malcolm Armstead layup and a Gregory Echenique dunk. The Ducks cut the deficit to 5 on a Joevan Catron jumper 30 seconds into the second stanza, but then Doug McDermott took over.
Following a 3-pointer by Kaleb Korver to push the lead to 8, McDermott hit a 3 of his own to put CU up 11. He hit a layup after missing a 3-point attempt, and then made two free throws after a Jahenns Manigat steal. He capped a personal 9-0 scoring run off another steal and assist from Manigat, this one due to a marvelous effort from the freshman from Canada. Manigat dove to the court to force a steal near the time line and then, outstretched on the hardwood, somehow cortorted his body to roll a pass to McDermott, who was streaking down the wing near Creighton’s basket. McDermott, Manigat’s roommate, grabbed the ball and attempted a layup in seemingly one smooth move, and his shot was goaltended. Just like that, Creighton led by 17, thanks in large part to a guy Altman brought to CU (Manigat) and a guy who came to the Hilltop specifically because Dana left for Oregon (McDermott).
The freshman from Canada had a stellar game, scoring 11 points and grabbing 3 rebounds while dishing 7 assists and collecting all of Creighton’s 4 steals. He played 37 minutes, a career-high, and has established himself as an integral part of the immediate future of Creighton basketball. Everyone is in awe with Antoine Young’s play in this tournament — and rightfully so. But Manigat has been almost as impressive. He scored 17 points in the team’s first game against San Jose State, but recorded just 4 points in the next two wins combined. However, in those two games he still played 66 minutes and dished 8 assists to just 1 turnover while swiping 2 steals and recording a block. For the four games, he has 17 assists, 7 steals, 8 rebounds, and just 4 turnovers. He brings intensity to the court whenever he’s in the game — and energy even when he’s on the bench, which hasn’t been often in the past four games.
Still, Manigat couldn’t limit the inevitable run Altman’s Ducks would make. A 16-5 Oregon push cut Creighton’s lead from 17 to 6 in just 7 minutes. Five minutes later, a Jay-R Strowbridge 3-pointer cut Creighton’s lead to 4 points with 90 seconds to play. It seemed Altman’s team was poised for a double-digit comeback in Omaha, something to which Creighton fans had grown accustom during the past 16 seasons.
But then, after the Jays broke full court pressure by the Ducks, Jones drilled a “no … no … YES!” 3-pointer from the corner. It was the type of shot that, had he missed, would have given the Ducks a run-out opportunity to cut their deficit to 1 or 2 points. Instead, the sophomore from Omaha, a kid at whose bedside Altman sat while he recovered from a rare heart condition before his senior season at Central High, let loose the type of shot that has defined his past month of basketball. He wants to shoot: it doesn’t matter from where, or when, or why. Those are situations that will drive a coach bonkers, not to mention thousands of people in the crowd. It was a bad shot, only in that it came at a time when anyone drawing up plays on a white board would plead with his players to run clock and get something going to the hoop. But you can’t call a make a bad shot, and the 12,000 fans roaring with excitement when he hit that 3 quickly forgot the circumstances of the shot. Jones shoots. That’s what he does, for better or for worse.
The excitement was short lived, though, as Jones picked up his fourth personal foul on the next Oregon possession. Catron hit one of two free throws, cutting the CU lead to 6, and then Garrett Sim stole the ball from Young, giving the Ducks numbers as E.J. Singler attacked the hoop for a layup that surely would cut the CU lead to 4.
Except Doug McDermott made sure that didn’t happen. The freshman followed Singler to the glass, and timed perfectly a blocked shot that sent the ball into Young’s hands with just under 40 seconds to play. McDermott got up gingerly, favoring an ankle he appeared to twist, making the defensive play of the night in a game where he once again was Creighton’s offensive star. Manigat calmly hit two free throws, Oregon didn’t score again, and the Jays took the first game in the best-of-three CBI championship series.
It was a storybook finish to the last season of basketball at the Qwest Center. The name of the arena will soon change, incorporating the CenturyLink brand. The Bluejays won their last 10 home games this season, sending the seniors out with a win on two separate senior nights. But now the question remains: Can a Creighton team that’s struggled on the road this season win an away game more than a month since their last true roadie?
Tune in Wednesday night to find out.