During a night when the debut of Gregory Echenique was all most Creighton fans could talk about, the Bluejays and the crowd seemed to treat the Idaho State Bengals as afterthoughts. And as a lead dwindled from 15 points with 6 minutes to go to just 4 points with a dozen or seconds left on the clock, it was evident that Echenique’s debut would be the best thing to come from an effort that was otherwise forgettable.
Panon and I treated Saturday’s coming out party as just that; an event to be celebrated. We suited up for the game, Panon in a dapper blue seersucker vest and jacket combo, myself in a navy blue coat and light blue tie, ready to embrace an evening we’d looked forward to for almost a year.
See, before last night it had been slightly more than 12 months since Echenique played a collegiate basketball game; December 6, 2009, to be exact. Since that time he’s sustained a serious eye injury, transferred from Rutgers to Creighton, sat out the second semester of what would become the worst season of Creighton basketball in more than a decade, practice throughout the summer and fall of 2010, and cut more than 25 pounds while getting back into game shape.
The guy’s been through a lot. And, if you hadn’t noticed, things haven’t been so smooth around the Hilltop and its basketball program in the past year, either. Creighton fans suffered through a stomach-punch season in 2009-2010, one that seemed to try and overcorrect Bluejays backers’ expectations after nearly a decade of success in the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton failed to make the NCAA or NIT Tournaments for the first time since 1997, then the coach who led the decorated decade took off for the Pacific Northwest, and then the school’s most talented player wasn’t asked back for his senior season. Throw in the introduction of a new coaching staff and a handful of players, and you can’t blame fans of the program for looking ahead to Echenique’s arrival.
To be sure, many of the die-hard Jays fans have placed enormous expectations on Echenique’s broad shoulders. Saturday night was merely the start to what CU backers hope will be break the Bluejays need to make the jump in status many around the program have expected since Dana Altman started taking CU to Big Dance after Big Dance.
So, yeah, we dressed up like we were headed to a Winter Formal or something. But we weren’t the only ones out early before the game, celebrating what we already assumed would be a successful showing by the new big man and his teammates. Other Jays fans took in the first Saturday night game of the season by getting to the bars and restaurants early, decked out in the white and the blue, bantering about Echenique and how he’d do. I’m fairly certain, through no sort of scientific polling, that if I’d have asked 10 people wandering around the Hilton lobby bar what team Creighton hosted that night, fewer than half would have said the Bengals.
But the team from Idaho State left an impression on me, if not only because they failed to fold following a scorching start by Antoine Young and the Bluejays. The Jays didn’t miss a shot until Ethan Wragge couldn’t connect on a jumper with just less than 12 minutes to play in the first half. To that point, Creighton led 22-13 and had made the team’s first 8 field goal attempts. Young had three 3-pointers and two assists during the barrage, which preceded Echenique’s entrance into the lineup. The big guy went to work immediately after checking in, grabbing a defensive rebound and then making up for a Young turnover with a blocked shot in transition. He made a nice layup after missing an attempt to record his first points as a Bluejay, and then he settled in. He grabbed a few more boards in the first half and had another block, plus he displayed a feathery free throw shot for a few more points.
Kenny Lawson was sick for a few days during the week, and the plan to play both he and Echenique didn’t come to fruition. In fact, Lawson logged only 18 minutes all night, and he didn’t play during the final 9 minutes of the game. But Bluejays fans saw during Creighton’s last game what he could do when healthy and energized. The crowd wanted more of Echenique, and he delivered. Especially during one tantalizing series late in the game.
With the Jays up 9 but with the Bengals pushing the tempo, Echenique caught a nice pass from Young spun and finished a layup with his left hand. Fouled on the play, he made the free throw and then drew a foul the next trip down the court too. Two more made free throws, and he was on a role. But his next play would become the signature memory many would take from Echenique’s debut.
With about 3 minutes to play in the game, with the Bluejays up 11 over the Bengals, Chase Grabau thought he could sneak a shot up over the 6-9 Echenique. The following photos don’t capture the ferocity with which Creighton’s newcomer blocked Grabau’s attempt; but his yell (second photo), as well as the thump the echoed from his hand swatting the ball, resonated well throughout the Qwest Center’s lower bowl.
Consider it a violent exhale after sitting, waiting, and waiting some more to resume a college basketball career. The block, and the resulting exasperation, seemed to voice the emotions and feelings bottled up in the big man for the past 12 months. It seemed a fitting exclamation point to a sure win.
Except the Bengals got the offensive rebound and converted a 3-pointer. Three turnovers and three missed free throws later, Creighton clung to a 5-point lead. Idaho State would cut the margin to 4 with 19 seconds to play, but that would be as close as the visitors would come. A week full of tune-up games would begin with anything but a bang, not counting the steady performance by Creighton’s newest Bluejay. But a win is a win.