This is the first in a new 16-part series exclusive to White & Blue Review in which we’ll go back and look at each of the NCAA Tournament teams in Creighton Basketball history. Today we continue with Part II of our look back at the first of Tony Barone’s two teams to make the tourney, the 1988-89 squad. To catch up on Part I, click here.
Getting Into the Win Column
Traveling to Ohio to take on Cleveland State, the Jays played much better. Chad Gallagher scored 15 first half points, finishing with 23 points on 10-13 shooting from the field, and played the final 6:18 with four fouls. As the game went back-and-forth down the stretch, time after time the Jays came up with the big plays. Bob Harstad tipped in a miss with 2:10 to go giving Creighton a 67-65 lead. James Farr hit a free throw to put them back ahead 68-67 after Cleveland State had tied it. Then after Todd Eisner had his shot blocked with 20 seconds to go and the Jays down one, James Farr grabbed a rebound, was fouled, and hit both free throws to give the Jays a 70-69 win — their first of the young season.
Returning home to play San Jose State, Harstad and Gallagher put the team on their shoulders and led them to a second consecutive victory. Harstad scored six straight points early on as Creighton built a 10-5 lead, and scored 10 of their first 18 over the first ten minutes to set the tone. Gallagher, playing the role of tag team partner, took over late in the game, scoring eight straight points in the final minutes as Creighton pulled away. Harstad led the team in both points and rebounds with 23 and 12, respectively, and Gallagher contributed 17 and 9 as the Jays evened their record at 2-2.
Unfortunately, there would be no momentum taken from that game, as the Jays dropped the next two games to fall to 2-4 on the year. The first, in Jonesboro against Arkansas State, saw both Bob Harstad and James Farr get into early foul trouble, limiting their minutes and their contributions. In what was becoming a trend, they blew an eight-point second half lead, but a furious late-game comeback — starting with a Matt Roggenburk three and then five straight points from Farr — cut a 12 point deficit to 67-63 with 41 seconds to play. The rally would fall short, as those would prove to be the final points they’d score in a 71-63 defeat.
Next up was a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame and superstar freshman LaPhonso Ellis. The Irish were coming off wins over two Top 25 teams in Kentucky and Indiana, and were on the edge of being ranked themselves. Harstad did everything he could to keep the Jays in the game, scoring a then-career high 28 points, 18 of them in the second half, but the combination of Ellis and Joe Frederick were simply too much to overcome as Creighton lost again, 77-64. “We have a stupid early season schedule, one that I made,” Barone told reporters after the game. “It’s not necessarily the way to open the season, but it’s my fault. We’ll come to Notre Dame and play any time we get the chance. We’re 2-4, but I like my team. A lot of coaches who are 2-4 hate their team.”
One-fifth of the season was through as the Jays prepared to take a week off for finals, and it was tough to get a read on them. With the exception of the Notre Dame game, they had held leads in the second half of every one of their four losses, and they had looked pretty good in their two wins. The question was, could they find the leadership to not only sustain those leads on the road but turn them into wins?
The news coming out of finals week wasn’t exactly encouraging. Sophomore Duan Cole, who had played sparingly in three games after missing most of preseason with a knee injury, underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair ligament damage to his ACL. He would be lost for the season and be granted a medical redshirt; his loss left the Jays with just one experienced point guard on the roster.
Schedule-wise, things were looking brighter though. Four straight home games would round out the month of December, followed by a short road trip to Illinois-Chicago before MVC play commenced. The first three of those constituted what Barone referred to as “Trifecta Week”, part of his non-stop efforts to promote the team to the Omaha public. “I don’t know much about racing, but I figured trifecta simply meant that we need to get three wins. That’s what our goal is.” His definition of trifecta might have been slightly off, but his goal was a noble one — and one the team would respond to.
First up: Montana, a team Barone called the most physical the Jays played all year, led by all-Big Sky center Wayne Tinkle, a 6-10, 250 lb behemoth that Chad Gallagher had the unenviable task of guarding. Never one to shy away from conversing with referees during a game, Barone fired a pre-emptive shot in the media the day of the game. “I will be up from the beginning of the game yelling at the referee in relation to moving picks. I’ve never seen a team that’s as aggressive on their picks as this team is.”
Chad Gallagher met their aggression with his own aggression, forcing Tinkle into missing 10 of his 12 shots. Unfortunately, that aggression meant Gallagher used up his quota of fouls trying to contain the Grizzlies big man, and he fouled out with 12:06 to play. Bob Harstad was asked to play all 40 minutes with the other half of the Dynamic Duo out, and he took his game up a notch, scoring 24 points and leading the charge in the game’s deciding run. After Montana took a 24-23 lead to open the second half, Creighton rattled off 15 consecutive points, 11 of them from Harstad, to take a 38-24 lead just before Gallagher fouled out. Thanks largely to Harstad, the Jays gutted out a 57-51 win.
Marquette was the second team to visit Omaha during Trifecta Week, and in cooking up the 79-73 win, Creighton used a different recipe. During their first seven games, Harstad and Gallagher combined for 55% of the team’s points; against Marquette, Harstad scored 17, Farr had 15, Gallagher had 14, Todd Eisner had 13, Matt Roggenburk had 12 and Troy Bell had 8 in the most balanced scoring attack of the season to date.
It was an impressive display of what the Jays were capable of, offensively, when clicking on all cylinders. Roggenburk made 4-7 from three point range and Eisner 3-5 to stretch the defense. Bell scored all eight of his points in the first 10 minutes, when others were struggling. Harstad scored 12 of his 17 points in the first half; Gallagher scored 11 of his 14 in the second half. Point guard James Farr made 8-10 free throws in the final 1:18. Talk about balance! They picked a good night to spread the wealth, too; after Harstad took a shot to the jaw in the first half, he played the rest of the game in a daze. At the postgame press conference, he said, “I got hit in the jaw really hard and it slammed my neck back. I was dizzy for a bit. It rung my bell pretty good.” Barone laughed and added, “The blow made him even goofier than normal!”
The third team of Trifecta Week was Montana State, and though the Jays picked up the third win of the week to meet their goal, no one was celebrating in the locker room after the game. Gallagher injured his knee just minutes into the game, and the team feared the center might be done for the season.
Without him, the Jays struggled to regroup, shooting just 23% from the floor and trailing at the half 33-25. It took them the entire second half to rally back, and with 1:24 left, Troy Bell stole the ball at midcourt and raced for a dunk to tie the game for the first time. Just one problem: he missed, and the ball ricocheted out of bounds, deflating both the crowd and the team. In an instant, Bell had gone from hero to goat — and before the City Auditorium crowd could catch their breath, he would swing back to being a hero. With 20 seconds left, Bell grabbed a key rebound to secure the final possession for Creighton and give them a chance to send the game to OT. Despite being 3-21 from the field in the game, Barone drew up a play in the huddle for Harstad — the logical choice with Gallagher injured. James Farr caught the inbounds pass from Matt Roggenburk near the bench, and drove to the basket drawing two defenders with him, which left Harstad open on the baseline. Farr dished it off to Harstad, who drove ferociously to the bucket, slamming home the tying bucket just before the horn. They would ride that momentum to pull away in the extra period, winning 75-69.
The next day, Gallagher’s injury was diagnosed as loose cartilage, requiring arthroscopic surgery that would force the Jays to open MVC play without their center. Actually, it was worse than that: it forced them to field a lineup without an experienced player taller than 6’6″; with backup Chris Rodgers out with his own knee injury, that left seldom-used sophomore Bill O’Dowd as the next (only?) man up. O’Dowd, a 7’0″ 215 lb center from Miami, had never started a game and rarely played more than a few minutes at a time. He would now be looked upon to shoulder the load in the paint.
On New Years Eve, the first game of the Bill O’Dowd Era was a rematch with Arkansas State, a team that had defeated the Jays in early December. Gallagher had done a nice job containing their All-American candidate John Tate in that first meeting, but paired up with the inexperienced O’Dowd, Tate dominated the low post. Ever the optimist, Barone tried to spin things afterward. “I thought he did fine. I think he gave us the consistency in the paint. He was a little tentative on offense, but as far as rebounding and defense, he was fine. Of course, when you lose a 6’11″ kid in the middle like Gallagher, you’re going to be disjointed. We weren’t all that good with him in the lineup. With him out of the lineup, we have to redirect some of our offensive thrust in terms of shooting the ball from the perimeter.”
Harstad did his damnedest to make up the difference, going 8-17 from the floor for 22 points, but it wasn’t enough as the Jays were swept in the rare season series with a non-conference opponent.
Two days later, they traveled to the Windy City to take on Illinois-Chicago. Harstad once again di everything he could to try and lead the Jays to a win, scoring a then-career high 32 points and securing 15 rebounds in a monster game. But the Flames center, Derrick Johnson, scored 29 as O’Dowd was no match for the bigger, more physical Johnson in the post; Johnson made 8-12 from the floor in the first half alone, and 13-19 for the game. He simply overmatched whoever the Jays put on him, though Barone bristled at that description afterward. “I don’t want to say ‘overmatched’, but we have a good player (Gallagher) that didn’t play tonight. I don’t want to use it as an excuse. But if he played, Johnson would not have gotten the points he did tonight, especially from the paint.”
But he did, and the Flames won the game to drop Creighton to a disappointing 5-6 entering MVC play. To the media who had picked them to finish seventh out of eight teams, a 5-6 non conference record might not have been disappointing, or even surprising; to Tony Barone and his players, it was definitely frustrating.
They had one week to prepare for Illinois State and relished the chance to hit the reset button on their season.
Trying to Drum Up Fan Support
As MVC play began on January 9, Barone pleaded with the fans to come out and support his team. An average of 3,976 had watched the first six home games, a 23% dip from the year before. A stinging rebuke by the coach in the World-Herald was met with anger from some fans, who told him via letters to the editor and calls to his weekly radio show that the team should win before accusing them of meager support. Here’s some of the choice quotes, as told to Steve Sinclair of the World-Herald and published on Page One of the Sports section that blustery January morning:
“I wish this team would have the opportunity to perform in front of more people. My biggest disappointment here in this program, is that for some reason the fans have decided that this is not a form of entertainment for them, for whatever reason.
“I can’t tell you what it is. It’s probably me. It must be something I do that the fans aren’t happy with because you can’t watch these guys play and not see that their effort is tremendous and that they’re trying to win basketball games.”
“The people who are at the games have been fantastic. They have been superb. But I can’t say it in any other way, we need more people to come out and give us the chance to make a run here.”
“I think there are a whole lot of excuses why we haven’t had bigger crowds. But we just need support. You can blame anything you want. I just think this particular group of kids are Creighton kids and the Creighton community should support this team. Maybe that’s a smaller community than I thought it was.”
That final quote in particular struck a sour chord with some Jaybackers, and if he’d hoped to inspire people to come out that night to see his team, the tirade had the opposite effect: the smallest crowd of the year, and the smallest for an MVC game since they’d re-joined the league in 1977, came through the turnstiles. Just 3,342 fans saw the Jays get their first win without Gallagher in the lineup.
Hitting the Reset Button
Closing out leads had been a problem for Creighton through their first eleven games, and in their MVC opener, it looked like their failure to close out Illinois State might cost them again. The Redbirds went on a late run and cut the lead to one, 57-56, with 4:41 to play. Just as momentum — and perhaps the game — seemed to be swinging Illinois State’s way, Troy Bell came up with two key defensive plays on consecutive possessions. On the first, he blocked a shot which was rebounded by Harstad, who converted a pair of free throws after being fouled as he secured the ball. The next time down the floor, Bell ferociously blocked a shot by ISU’s Randy Blair clear to the center court line, where Matt Roggenburk scooped it up and converted a fastbreak layup. It was all part of an 11-0 run that cinched the game; Illinois State scored a meaningless basket with 13 seconds left to make the final margin a 68-58 win for Creighton in the opening game of the MVC schedule.
Two days later, even better news was received: the NCAA voted to grant Creighton a one-year probationary period to get its athletic programs up to D1 participation standards. The vote meant that the Jays were now officially eligible for the NCAA Tournament, should they earn a bid. “This is a great shot in the arm for us,” Barone told media after the vote. And indeed it was: the Jays would win eight of their next nine games in the best stretch of ball they’d played since re-entering the league in 1977.
After a 77-69 win in Terre Haute, the Bluejays went into Wichita for a Monday night tussle with the preseason favorite Shockers. Wichita had won 23 straight MVC home games, had never lost a home conference game in Coach Eddie Fogler’s three seasons, and had not lost to Creighton at home since 1981. But Creighton was coming in hot, was energized by the NCAA’s vote and even better, was set to get Chad Gallagher back from injury.
15-point favorites, the Shockers were knocked to the mat early and often by the Jays, who quieted the sold-out crowd by holding a double-digit lead most of the night. Gallagher’s return was clutch timing, as Harstad found himself in foul trouble almost the entire game; after picking up his fourth foul early in the second half, he spent large chunks of the half on the bench. As a result, Gallagher was asked to play big minutes in his return, scoring 15 points and securing 8 rebounds in 30 minutes of action.
With Wichita down 51-38 midway through the second half, the Shocker crowd got back into the game, rattled Jays point guard James Farr into playing faster than he wanted to, and the Shockers went on a 16-6 run to take a 57-54 lead. Deja vu all over again?
“I felt bad when they came back on us,” the senior told the media after the game, “because I’m the point guard, and I didn’t keep my composure.” He needn’t have apologized; after a quick one-minute breather, he composed himself enough to make up for it by leading his team to victory. Upon re-entering, he drew a foul and made two free throws to tie the game with 41 seconds remaining, which ultimately sent the game into overtime. Farr then scored six of the Jays seven points in OT on 3-3 shooting, shouldering the scoring load with Harstad fouled out and Gallagher out of gas in his first game in three weeks. Farr’s final line? Playing 44 of the 45 minutes, he scored 15 points, dished out 4 assists and grabbed 4 rebounds. The 80-79 win opened a lot of eyes around the Valley; it moved Creighton to 3-0 in the league, with a win on the road against the preseason favorite in its possession.
Next up was defending champion Bradley, another team Barone had not defeated during his time on the Hilltop. “They have dominated us,” Barone told the media on the MVC’s weekly teleconference. “We haven’t been competitive against them because they’ve been able to run against us. That’s absolutely a primary concern for us.” As if the players needed a reminder after losing by an average of 23 points in their three meetings the year before, Barone had his assistants hang signs in the locker room that read ‘Get back, Get back, Get back, Get back!’
Continuing his explanation, Barone noted “We’ve put it up on their lockers, too, because if we don’t get back on defense, (Bradley) will get a lot of easy baskets. If they get a lot of easy baskets, that’s a problem for us.”
They got back, alright. They clobbered the Braves, 94-68, serving notice to the rest of the league that Creighton was serious about backing up their coaches’ talk of championship aspirations. The win capped a week where they both defeated the preseason favorite on their home court and blew out the defending champ in Omaha. The two wins moved them to 4-0 in the MVC, and into the early driver’s seat.
The knockout punch against Bradley came early. Creighton shot a remarkable 75% from the field, making 21 of 28 shots including 8-9 from three-point range, in building a staggering 58-27 lead at halftime. The unlikely star was Porter Moser, who scored 17 points in the first half, going a perfect 5-5 from three-point range with 10 — yes, 10 — assists. Harstad provided the firepower inside, making 6-8 from the field and 5-7 at the line the first half alone.
Troy Bell had 14 points on 7-8 shooting with four blocks, Chad Gallagher made 7-11 shots for 14 points, and James Farr contributed 12 points, five assists and played lockdown defense on the Valley’s leading scorer, Anthony Manuel, holding him 10 points below his season average.
Harstad Key to Hot Start
Two nights later in Carbondale, Bob Harstad had one of the more amazing nights of his amazing career (which is saying something), pouring in 24 points and grabbing 20 rebounds. Said Barone of the performance, “If you don’t think that was the best rebounding game you’ve seen in a long time, something is wrong. It was incredible. He got every single key rebound in the second half.” Indeed, he finished with 10 in each half, and in leading the team in scoring, did so for the 11th straight game.
There were 19 lead changes in the second half alone, as the Egyptian Dogs went back and forth with the Jays. Porter Moser, the shooting star of the Bradley game, once again came through in the clutch. Up 75-74 with 1:14 to play, Moser sank a 23-footer as time expired on the 45-second shot clock to put CU up 78-74. Downplaying his own performance, Harstad instead praised Moser after the game. “The biggest play of the game was Porter’s three-pointer. He was so far out on that shot. It was incredible. That was the salt in their wounds.”
At 10-6 overall and 5-0 in the league — including 3-0 on the road — Creighton had established itself as the team to beat in the Valley. But the road trip had stops in two more Illinois cities still to come before they would return home, and both games were rematches with teams they’d defeated already and thus would not be caught off guard by the suddenly red-hot Jays.
Creighton had never won a regular season game at Illinois State (though they’d won an MVC Tourney game there in March of 1984), and despite this being their first game in the brand-new Redbird Arena, it wouldn’t prove any friendlier than the old venue, Horton Field House. ISU Red’s gameplan was simple: cut off the Jays inside game and force them to win with jump shots.
“From the beginning of the game, they set the tone of how the play was going to be in the paint,” Bob Harstad told the media after the game. “They pretty much intimidated our inside players. It’s something we didn’t adjust to. We were missing short shots and had a lot of traveling calls underneath.”
The biggest difference in turning a 10-point Jay win in Omaha into a 76-66 Redbird win in Normal? Forwards Tony Ball and Troy Bell combined for 21 points in Omaha; Bell had just five points in Normal, and Ball went scoreless. Nothing worked offensively, with the inside and outside games both stymied, and the Jays suffered their first MVC loss.
There was no time to lick their wounds though, not with a trip to Peoria two days later to take on the defending champion Bradley, a team Creighton had defeated nine days prior.
With the game tied 33-all, Bob Harstad picked up his third and fourth fouls four seconds apart with 18:55 to play — and point guard James Farr joined him on the bench with four fouls a couple of minutes later. With both players on the bench, Bradley rallied from a nine-point deficit to take the lead, and Barone by his own admission panicked. He put both Farr and Harstad back in with four fouls. As he told the media afterward, “I took a gamble. It was way too early to put them back in.”
The gamble, as many of Barone’s gambles did, paid immediate dividends. Harstad nailed a turnaround jumper on the first possession after coming back in to put the Jays back ahead, and then led them on a 13-4 run to put the game out of reach. Both players played the rest of the game without fouling out, and were key in Creighton outscoring the Braves 52-35 in the final half.
During the first half of the MVC schedule — just seven games in those days — Creighton had played five road games, and gone 6-1. That meant they not only were in first place at the halfway mark, but they had five of their final seven at home.
First Place at the Break
The last time a Creighton squad won six of their first seven MVC games before the 1988-89 accomplished the feat was during World War II, when Eddie Hickey’s group went 10-0 in 1943 to win the league. Of course, the Jays were an independent from 1948-1977, but still, it had been 45 years since they’d started a campaign this hot.
Perennial powerhouse Tulsa came to Omaha to open up the second half of the conference slate, and their coach, J.D. Barnett, told the Tulsa World what he believed the secret of the Jays success was. “Creighton is just a team that works awfully, awfully hard. Tony has done a great job in getting those kids ready to play and getting them ready to play hard. They’re just a sound, fundamental basketball team that plays so hard and does not get itself beat. You’ve got to go in and beat them. That’s the key to Creighton’s success.”
That success continued against the Golden Hurricane, though it did little to please Barone. “We didn’t have the intensity I wanted tonight. There are probably 900 reasons for that. I don’t know what they all are. We had a poor workout yesterday…the good teams fight through that type of thing.”
They’d won 75-61 against the third-place team, but Barone wanted to make it clear that squandering a 29-point lead late in the game to win by only 14 was not acceptable. He wouldn’t be much happier following their next game versus Drake, either, despite it being another win.
The Bulldogs, in their first season under Jim Valvano clone (and former NC State assistant) Tom Abatemarco, were an, ahem, interesting team in that era, to put it mildly. They ran an “inverted triangle” offense — instead of the base being the baseline, they played the base in the frontcourt. It was a nightmare to prepare for simply because no one else ran it, making it tough for a scout team to replicate. And they also had a player, Terrell Jackson, who shot free throws from three feet behind the free throw line ON PURPOSE. In a game earlier that season at Indiana State, their bench was laughing at him as he prepared to shoot; he turned and winked at them before sinking both throws.
Defensively, Drake ran a triangle-and-two aimed at taking away the Jays inside game, daring them to shoot threes. As a result, Creighton took 13 of its first 24 shots from behind the arc, definitely not their preferred style of play. Even though they made eight, it led to them getting “greedy”, as Barone called it. Inspired by their success from the arc, the Jays began settling for threes rather than running their offense. Harstad summed it up in the locker room after the game. “It’s a setback. We didn’t play up to our potential. You can’t argue with the W, but if you’re looking at the future, this game didn’t help us.”
Nonetheless, it was a 74-72 win, moving the Jays to 8-1 in Valley play and 13-7 overall. They next took a brief respite from MVC play to complete the home-and-home with Cleveland State, who they’d defeated in December in Cleveland, and once again defeated the Vikings, this time 92-82.
Tomorrow in Part III, Creighton needs three wins in their final five games to clinch the MVC Regular Season title, travels to Wichita for the MVC Tournament and later, takes on Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.