There was only one guarantee about tonight’s road game at Bradley: I was going to enjoy my two hours of viewing pleasure no matter what. You know why? Because I’ve adopted a new way to try and counteract the usually negative outcomes of Creighton’s roadies this season — tasty treats.
That’s right. If I have to sit and watch the Bluejays blow double-digit leads, and if I have to listen to homer announcers denounce every single call that goes against the home team as “shocking” or “stunning” or whatever, then I’m going to do so with a great tasting dinner and/or drink of choice.
What sounds (or smells) better than coming home from work and the gym to a slow-cooked beef brisket, a tub of homemade bar-b-que sauce, and Kaiser buns from Rotella’s? Nothing. Ab. So. Lutely. Nothing. Last week, I choked down an overflowing bowl of stir fry while Osiris and the Redbirds spotted the Jays a 12-point lead and then doubled ‘em up en route to another CU road loss. Maybe my beloved BBQ would turn the tides?
A couple of years ago, the Bluejays went to Peoria for a late January game during the middle of the week right before a weekend game at Drake, and much like last night Creighton jumped all over the Braves. Sure, that season it was to the tune of a 16-0 run to open the first half, and sure, that Jays team was led by a solid group of starters (not the bench, which led Creighton to the win tonight) that led by no less than 9 throughout that entire win. But this most recent win on the road against Bradley felt similar to the contest in 2007, because the Bluejays seemed to be hitting shots from everywhere for the first part of the first half. The movement and flow from the offense seemed correct. The defensive intensity was there. Things just felt good.
Things didn’t feel so good Monday, when it was learned P’Allen Stinnett would be suspended indefinitely by Dana Altman and the Bluejays coaching staff. Few around the program knew exactly how this road game would play out, given the circumstances including having to fill Stinnett’s minutes with various efforts from guys who haven’t played as well as they can (Kaleb Korver) and guys who haven’t played at all (Josh Jones). But maybe this change is something the squad needed? Or maybe they just got hot from outside and that overshadowed continued problems on the boards and on the defensive end? Regardless, the Bluejays are 1-0 post-P, thanks in large part to a few freshmen who came to Peoria ready to shoot and a few juniors who came to Peoria ready to score.
Josh Jones and Ethan Wragge checked into the game with just about 16 minutes to play in the first half. Both the redshirt freshman Jones and the true frosh Wragge have had quite dissimilar first seasons of playing time. Wragge is averaging about 14 minutes per game, has played in 21 contests, and is the Bluejays’ best outside threat (42% from 3-point range). When Altman brings him in, Wragge looks to shoot. For a team that has struggled offensively, he’s just what the fans are looking for.
Fans are also looking for Jones, but only in the sense that they want to know where he has gone? The redshirt frosh from Omaha Central has been anchored soundly to the end of the bench, where along with Andrew Bock the two newcomers are gaining valuable experience by watching what’s going on around them. A prolific scorer in the largest high school class of a state not know for producing Division-I talent, the scouting report on Jones is that he can hit from anywhere if he gets on a roll. Sadly, that hadn’t happened yet during his time as a Bluejay. Until tonight.
Jones played 21 minutes against Bradley; he logged a total of 21 minutes from December 22 through Sunday’s game against Missouri State. And he scored 13 points (career high) on 5-8 shooting from the field (career bests in makes and attempts) including 3-6 from 3-point range (also career bests in both categories). He grabbed an offensive rebound (2 boards total) and dished an assist. And he didn’t mouth off to the refs or slam any basketballs to the court or take plays off on defense. Sure, he might have lost his man, but he’s probably still trying to figure out where to go on defense (and probably on offense, too). But what Bluejay hasn’t lost his man on D this season?
Wragge was himself against Bradley, which is to say he shot early and often. In the first minute he was in the game, he took two 3s (1 make, 1 miss). Then, from the 5:54 mark until the 4:19 mark of the first half, he launched 3 more 3s (1 make, 2 misses). In total, Wragge scored 9 points on 3-9 shooting from the field (3-8 from 3-point range), his highest point total since January 6 and his highest attempt total since Creighton’s trip to Orlando. And most importantly, he played a career-high 21 minutes.
But for all the scoring the two frosh contributed to Creighton’s big road win, Wragge’s defensive play with a few minutes left in the game was perhaps their most vital contribution. Following a free throw by the Braves to cut Creighton’s lead to 1, Antoine Young missed a jump shot and Bradley collected the board. But instead of BU getting a shot, Wragge came up with a steal with 2:22 to play, which led to two free throws by Kenny Lawson. The 1-point deficit was the closest the Braves would get the rest of the game.
But the freshmen’s efforts would have been wasted if it wasn’t for solid games from juniors Lawson (16 points, 5 rebounds) and Darryl Ashford, the heir apparent to the role of slasher/creative scorer left empty by Stinnett’s suspension. For the second straight game, Ashford went 4-9 from the field, but this time he hoisted a career-high 8 3-point shots (making 3) and didn’t get to the free throw line as many times (2, compared to Sunday’s 8). And while he grabbed just 1 rebound in 26 minutes, he dished 4 assists and corralled 2 steals (and missed a few other ones by the slimmest of margins).
Lawson got raked in the face during his first basket of the game (a two-handed flush), reentered the game with a piece of gauze jammed up his nostril, but still held his own, especially offensively. Does he need to pass more quickly out of double teams? Yes. Does he need to prevent the opponent from grabbing more offensive rebounds? Sure. But as the team’s best free throw shooter (maybe not statistically, but in clutch situations, there is no one I want at the line other than Lawson) he hit some crucial shots from the charity stripe down the stretch. And he finished with authority on a couple of one-handed jams that seemed to allude him in previous seasons. Through 10 MVC games (SIU and INS still play Thursday), Lawson is 10th in league games in scoring (13.6 ppg) and 6th in rebounding (6.9 rpg). He leads conference play in blocked shots, too (2.0 pg; 20 total).
All of these individual efforts considered, the Bluejays still let a double-digit lead slip away. Granted, home teams that trail early always seem to mount a run, either to get back into the game and ultimately lose or take the lead and send the visitor away with a loss. For this year’s Bluejays squad, it has been the later of the two options, a painful way to drop roadies. And when the Braves were barreling their way back into the game, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Creighton fan counting the seconds until Les’ team would claim the lead and send the Bluejays home swallowing another hard-to-take road loss. But a strange thing happened for the second consecutive game: Creighton did the little things late to stave off a loss. Free throws. Defensive stops. Buzzer sounds, and the Bluejays leave Peoria with a win (again).