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Bluejay Rewind: Jays vs Louisville, 3/11/1999

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 March of 1999, Creighton made its’ ninth NCAA Tournament appearance, and first since 1991. Despite a 7-1 record against teams that made the tourney, and despite being slotted in a tossup 10/7 matchup, hardly anyone outside of Omaha considered the Jays to be a serious contender to advance. The reason? Their opponent wore “LOUISVILLE” across their chest, giving them name recognition and respect that belied their pedestrian 19-11 record. They’d earned that thanks to 22 NCAA trips, six Final Fours and two national championships in the 28 years Denny Crum had been head coach.

“Everyone’s overlooking us,” Creighton senior Rodney Buford told the media on the eve of the game. “Everybody’s talking about what Louisville is going to do and what they have to do to get out of here. With us being a smaller school, they don’t know what we have and they don’t know what we can do. We’ve got a lot of hard-working guys and you can’t take us for granted. If you don’t know about us, we’re going to sneak up on you and bite you.”

All that talk apparently influenced the Cardinal players, who (according to an anecdote relayed by Tom Shatel in a column the day after the game) yelled during the morning shootaround “You can’t hang with us!” at a group of Creighton players.

In the first half, at least, it looked like that might be true. Louisville burst out of the gate to an early 13-6 lead, making Creighton’s man-to-man defense look slow and timid. “At that first TV timeout I was so darn mad,” Dana Altman noted after the game. “They had 13 points already and we were playing tentative. We just had to try to get something to slow the game down. They were just getting good shots on us and easy stuff inside.”

They scrapped the man-to-man and went to a zone, which slowed the game down and kept it close enough for them to have a chance. Still, they trailed 31-23 at the half, and five minutes into the second half trailed 40-27 — a deep enough hole to cause CBS to switch many areas of the country who had been seeing the game to something more competitive.

Then a funny thing happened. During the under-16 timeout, Altman decided to switch from their “soft” press to an aggressive, full-court press. Combined with their zone defense in the half-court, it completely befuddled the Cardinals, who clearly were not prepared for it. The Jays rattled off a 22-7 run over the next 12:30, grabbing a 49-47 lead when Ben Walker converted a three-point play at the 3:04 mark. Their gritty comeback won over the Orlando Arena crowd, and those without ties to the Cardinals were suddenly pulling for the Jays.

After Louisville tied it up on the next possession, Rodney Buford hit the shot of his career, making a long-three with the shot clock winding down that gave Creighton a 52-49 lead. Gus Johnson — yes, THE Gus Johnson — yelled out on the CBS broadcast which was now being seen across most of America, “Rodney Buford for the lead…OOOOHHHH! Holy mackarel! From down-town!” proving two things we now know to be fact. One, Rodney Buford is amazing, and Two, Gus Johnson is the best.

The Jays would go a perfect 10-10 from the free-throw line over the final two minutes to ice the victory and set up a second round matchup with #5 Maryland. Enjoy the highlights of this thrilling win!

As a special bonus, check out a vintage three-minute ESPN segment on the game featuring an interview with Dana Altman and commentary from Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale. I found it at the end of an old VHS tape of the game, and found it amusing.

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