Bluejay Rewind: 1978 MVC Title Game
To close out the 1977-78 season, Creighton won two of their last three games to clinch the regular season crown with a 12-4 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. The tourney was a very different beast back in those days — the champion got a bye into the the title game, while the other eight teams played off for the right to travel to the champions home gym to play for the title. So while everybody else played, the Jays sat…for eight long days. With an offense predicated on precision passing and cutting, the long layoff concerned coaches who feared the team would be rusty.
Meanwhile, Indiana State — led by Larry Bird, maybe you’ve heard of him — beat West Texas State, Bradley and New Mexico State, the latter in two overtimes, to punch their ticket to Omaha. The grueling battle left Bird’s notoriously sore back in bad shape; he spent the entire day before the game — and the hours leading up to the game — in an Omaha hospital getting treatment for back spasms.
“Not a lot of people know that,” Rick Apke told the World-Herald in 2003. “There was some question whether he’d play. When we came out for warmups, we saw him going through some layup drills, but you could tell he was being very careful. But he wound up playing, and playing very well.”
NBC picked up the game as part of their weekend college basketball package, and sent it to affiliates in MVC cities; most of the country got the Michigan-UCLA tilt, but they cut in at the end and most of the nation saw the final moments. It was the first nationally-televised Creighton game from the Civic, and it’s that television broadcast that the highlights below are pulled from.
As for Bird’s bad back? Like all the great ones, he had the ability to flip a switch come game time and dominate despite obstacles, and he certainly didn’t play like he had a bad back on this day. After missing his first shot, he didn’t miss again the rest of the game, making his last 11 shots from the field and all seven of his free throws. He finished with 29 points, and scored all but two of Indiana State’s 20 second-half points, while making 11-12 field goals, 6-7 free throws, grabbing six rebounds and three steals, dishing out three assists AND holding the Jays’ David Wesely to just six points, well below his season average. It was truly a virtuoso performance. He lit the gym on fire with his shooting, and the packed house was forced to bottle their noise and energy as the Sycamores built a double-digit lead.
His final bucket of the day, with 6:20 to play, gave Indiana State a 52-44 lead. Coach Apke called in a press they called “Monster.” It forced four consecutive turnovers, including two straight ten-second calls, as the noise in the Civic ratcheted up more and more.
Meanwhile, Kevin Kuehl hit two shots and Kevin McKenna one off the first three of those turnovers, and suddenly the deficit was just two. The fourth turnover, a long pass that sailed wild over Bird’s head and out of bounds, led to a 20-foot jumper from Rick Apke that tied the game at 52 with 4:30 to play.
Coach Apke, watching Bird light the gym on fire with his shooting, decided his best chance at victory was to prevent Bird from shooting — and the best way to do that was to not give them the ball back. And so the Jays dropped into their “Five-Ball” offense on the next possession. With no shot clock and no three point line in 1978, a lot of teams had a delay offense in their arsenal, Creighton among them.
“We were disciplined and trained to only accept a layup when we were in the offense,” Rick Apke told the World-Herald in 2003. “But since they had played us twice before and scouted us, Indiana State played off of us and did a good job of not letting us get any backdoor cuts for layups. Frankly, that was one of the rare times in that offense where we didn’t get fouled or get a layup.”
And so for over four minutes, the Jays and Sycamores played a game of cat and mouse. They toyed with each other, like boxers in a heavyweight fight circling each other looking for an angle. Pass after pass went inside and out, side to side, four exhilarating minutes of the Jays playing keep away while simultaneously hoping for a defensive mistake allowing them an easy basket. The crowd noise inside the Civic reached unfathomable levels. Finally, with 23 seconds left, Coach Apke called timeout.
The play call? Something called “Sarah”, named after a fan who happened to be watching practice the day Coach Apke had unveiled it three years earlier. The idea was for Randy Eccker to dribble penetrate into the lane and get the ball to any of three options. Trouble was, the Sycamores came out in a trap, and their harassing on-ball defense refused to allow the play to develop. Time was ticking down. Somehow, he fought through the trap, dribbling wildly, and then he saw Rick Apke out of the corner of his eye.
Apke was closely guarded at the top of the key. “By the time he got me the ball, there was something like seven seconds left,” Apke told reporters after the game, adding that if he had more time, he’d have looked for better options closer to the hoop. But time was not his ally. “I knew I had to do something with it, so I figured I might as well shoot it.”
And so he did. Apke threw up a fallaway jumper from 21-feet out; as it hung in the air the crowd went deathly silent. Ask anyone who was there, and they’ll tell you time seemed to stand still. As it swished through the net, the silence remained for a split second — the crowd in disbelief — before erupting in a noise unlike any the old barn had heard before or since.
As Eccker recalled in 1989, “In a lot of years in athletics, as a player and as a coach, that may have been the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard.”
Suddenly the Jays had a 54-52 lead with three seconds to play. Apke then batted down a desperation baseball-pass on the inbounds play, and the crowd stormed the court, lifting both he and Eccker in the air. “For 34 minutes, that really wasn’t a great game,” Eccker said in a 2003 World-Herald interview. “But those last six minutes made it a classic.”
Indeed. And so it is that we present the best of those last six minutes — the shot that tied it, and the game-winner — taken from the terrific 2003 documentary “The History of Creighton Basketball” which we’ll share in its’ entirety next month.
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