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Bluejay Rewind: Creighton vs SMS, 2/28/1999

Ed. Note: This is the part of our summer series that will look back at games from years past, including highlight packages. Not all of these games are classics in the traditional sense, but all of them feature terrific performances from Bluejay greats, and we think you’ll enjoy watching them as much as we did.

In the late 1990’s, no coach in the Missouri Valley was more loathed by opposing fanbases than Southwest Missouri State’s Steve Alford. His brash, outsized personality and penchant for arguing with officials — and sometimes other coaches — made him easy to dislike. The fact this his teams were pretty solid didn’t hurt, either, of course.

Creighton fans had another reason to dislike him. Six weeks before the game we’re looking back at today, Nerijus Karlikanovas scored 20 points with 8 rebounds in a road win over the Bears, including two huge three-pointers in the final seven minutes of a tight game. Ryan Sears’ off-balance buzzer-beater gave the Jays a 72-70 win, the Bears first loss of the season in conference play.

The very next morning, Karlikanovas was the subject of an NCAA probe regarding the possibility he played for a club team during his senior year of high school in Lithuania, thus making him ineligible. Dana Altman didn’t think the timing of the probe was a coincidence. “It was something that was brought to our attention (Wednesday) – I’m not sure how it originated – and we’ve got to get some information from over there,” Altman told the media. “He must have played too well Sunday.” When the World-Herald’s Rich Kaipust followed up by asking if that meant the probe was instigated by Southwest Missouri State, Altman wouldn’t comment, outside of a sly look.

Karlikanovas would miss the next two games while the NCAA investigated, and would return to play a key role off the bench down the stretch for a Jays team seeking their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. The sneaking suspicion — though never proven — that Alford had pulled a Billy Martin move and turned the NCAA’s eyes to the Bluejay forward only solidified his villainous reputation in Omaha.

The second game against SMS, played in late February, was much like the first: unbelievably physical, close throughout, with Alford on the verge of a technical foul most of the game for riding the refs. Instead of a Sears’ buzzer-beater this time, though, it was the Jays’ defense forcing the Bears’ to go to their third option — Ryan Bettenhausen — for a game-tying three at the horn. His shot missed, and the Jays held on for a 79-76 win.

Two games decided by a total of five points. That’s the set up for the team’s third matchup of the season in St. Louis, a game which would play out just like the first two — Creighton blew out to an early lead, SMS clawed back, then Creighton held on for a nail-biting win. It features Alford going ballistic just three-and-a-half minutes into the game, earning a technical foul that gave Creighton early momentum. It features perhaps the most Nerijus Play in the history of Nerijus Plays — lingering on the defensive end of the court tying his shoe while his team plays offense 4-on-5, then lumbering up court to catch a pass from Ryan Sears, dribbling into the lane, and scoring in one fluid motion. And it features the Jays scoring their last 14 points at the free throw line (none of which are included in the highlights below, for your sanity).

Next week: the 1999 MVC Championship game.

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