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Bluejay Rewind: Jays vs Rhode Island (03/18/2008)

Bluejay Rewind: Jays vs Rhode Island (03/18/2008)

Ed. Note: “Bluejay Rewind” is our popular summer series that looks 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.

[Box Score]

The 2007-08 Bluejays were one of the youngest squads of the Altman Era, featuring just one returning starter and a whopping eight first-year players — Kenny Lawson, Jr., Chad Millard, Casey Harriman, Cavel Witter, Booker Woodfox, Kaleb Korver, P’Allen Stinnett and Kenton Walker. It was an up-and-down season, but it featured more “ups” than “downs” and they went 21-10 overall after finishing fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 10-8 mark.

After being eliminated in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament, Creighton happily accepted a bid to the NIT and earned a home game against a talented Rhode Island team. The Rams had started the season 20-4 and spent four weeks in the Top 25, but limped to the finish line, losing seven of their final eight games. Led by Jimmy Baron and Will Daniels, the version of the Rams that showed up at Qwest Center Omaha on March 18 was much closer to the team that defeated Syracuse at the Carrier Dome that December than the one that had gone 1-7 down the stretch — this version scored with explosions of athleticism, a frightening mixture of aerial acrobatics and unstoppable dribble penetration, and they overwhelmed the Jays.

Nick Bahe opened the scoring with a three, and then URI rattled off a 12-0 run with Baron scoring almost at will against Creighton’s defense. They took a 45-30 lead into the locker room, as CU combined a terrible shooting half with an even worse defensive half — 11-33 overall, and 4-14 from three-point range, while allowing URI to go 18-34.

Early in the second half, audible groans went up from the Qwest Center crowd when Rhode Island’s lead swelled to 17 points; the rout was on, and an up-and-down season had all appearances of ending on a decidedly down note. It was 50-33 at the 16:26 mark, but that’s when the first of two improbable comebacks commenced.

First Booker Woodfox stuck a jumper to make it 50-35. Then P’Allen Stinnett nailed a three-pointer, and Woodfox swished a three of his own, followed by another jumper, and it was 52-43. It was a game again. Stinnett connected on a triple to make it 54-46, then hit a runner to make it 54-48. After two free throws from Cavel Witter, a 17-point deficit had been trimmed to just four in a little over seven minutes.

The Jays weren’t able to close the gap any further, though, as URI answered with a 7-0 run that put the lead back in double-digits, and that’s where it remained through the final media timeout. With 3:14 to go, it was 70-58 Rhode Island, but that’s when the second of two improbable comebacks commenced.

Just as they’d done earlier, Woodfox and Stinnett teamed up to overwhelm the Rams defense. Over the next two minutes, the duo outscored URI 11-2, with Woodfox contributing a pair of three-pointers and Stinnett making a three and a nifty jumper. Woodfox’s second triple cut the deficit to 72-69 with 1:03 to play; on URI’s next possession, they worked as much clock as they could, but the shot they wound up with — a jumper by Baron — was rejected by Stinnett, who corralled his own block and raced downcourt. He found Witter streaking to the basket, and after a foul and two free throws, it was 72-71.

URI’s Marquis Jones would hit one of two at the line to return the lead to two with 11.5 seconds to play, setting up a final possession conundrum — to go for the tie or for the win? Creighton played for the win, and the first option for the winning shot went to Stinnett. He drew a double-team that left Witter wide open in the corner, and that’s where Witter buried his only field goal of the game, a three-pointer that gave Creighton their first lead since leading 3-0 at the outset.

Re-watching this now, it occurs to me that this may very well have been the happiest Dana Altman was in public post-Arkansas — watch as he practically sprints to the scorers table to shake hands with the URI coach, then excitedly jump up and down pumping his fists to the crowd (!!), before running off the court slapping high-fives to any fan within reach.

Asked about that rare show of emotion, Altman told the media, “I just got caught up in the moment. I wanted the guys to keep fighting and they did. It was one of those nights where it was pulling teeth to get them going. I felt like a cheerleader, so I just ended it like a cheerleader.”

Who could blame him for being giddy? His team had trailed by as many as 17 in the second half and 12 with three minutes to go, yet had pulled off a win. The giddiness extended to the ESPNU crew, with announcer Dave Armstrong let loose a “WOW!” as the horn sounded, and to the crowd of just under 8,000, who went from despondent to jubilant in the span of about 10 minutes.

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