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Great Teams: 1988-89 (Part III)

This is the first in a new 16-part series exclusive to White & Blue Review in which we’ll go back and look at each of the NCAA Tournament teams in Creighton Basketball history. Today we continue with Part III of our look back at the first of Tony Barone’s two teams to make the tourney, the 1988-89 squad. If you’re new to the series today, catch up on Part I and Part II.

***

Two Straight Losses Hurt Title Chances

 

Wins in three of their final five games would clinch the MVC title, and when the Jays jumped out to an early 12-point lead in the next contest at Tulsa, it looked like they might be preparing the rafters for a banner. Then the Golden Hurricane went on a 15-3 run, erased the lead, and blew the Jays out.

Harstad had a particularly forgettable afternoon, going 0-7 from the floor with no points and four rebounds in 30 minutes, and he fouled out with 6:09 remaining in the game. That the MVC’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder had been completely shut out went a long way toward explaining why the Jays fell short.

What it didn’t explain was the continuation of a disturbing trend: an inability to hold big leads. Barone had worried about it after the first game with Tulsa, when they let a 29-point lead evaporate and held on to win by 14. The next game, they’d had a 14 point lead versus Drake and won by 2; against Cleveland State, a 25 point lead turned into a 10 point win; at Tulsa, a 12 point lead turned into an 8 point loss; and against Wichita State, a 12 point lead turned into a four point loss.

The latter was the second consecutive loss for the Jays, and was met with panic from local fans and media. The World-Herald ran a column under the headline “Jays Lacking Killer Instinct?” on the front of the Sports section, and it was a good question. In five straight games, they had blown big leads, losing two of them. The two straight losses set up a much tougher proposition to win the league, as now they needed to win two of their final three to secure the league crown.

They would win all three to erase any doubt. First, they won a thrilling overtime game against Southern Illinois, 102-100, but this time they were the ones doing the rallying. Down six with 45 seconds left, many in the City Auditorium crowd began to leave. They missed the game of the year, or at least, the best finish.

Down six, James Farr made two free throws to make it 91-87. After SIU made two free throws, Farr made two more with 29 seconds left to make in 93-89. SIU then missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Farr was fouled again while driving to the basket. He made one of two to cut the deficit to 93-90. The missed free throw was secured by Harstad — of course it was — and with eight seconds left, the Jays called timeout to set up the final play.

Designed for Farr to drive the lane and kick it out to either Porter Moser or Matt Roggenburk, Todd Eisner’s job was to set a screen to allow Farr enough room to get the pass away. The play broke down, and the only open man was Eisner. Trouble was, he was inside the three-point arc. By the time he took one dribble to get behind the arc, a Saluki defender was in his face, and he was unable to see the rim. The clock was at 1, so despite being covered, he had to throw up a desperation shot. As it rolled around the rim for what seemed like hours, the crowd held its breath, and exhaled as it went through the net to tie the game at the buzzer.

“The first time I saw the basket,” he said after the game, “the ball was going through the hole.” Barone called it “the biggest shot that I’ve seen in a college basketball game,” and few who witnessed it would dispute that.

Then in overtime, the senior Farr took over, telling his teammates he was going to win the game for them. He scored 11 of the team’s final 17 points, and made the game-winner at the buzzer in OT. With the score tied at 100, he put the ball on the floor, drove inside and put up a heavily contested shot that went in just before the final horn. “James has been the key to our team all year,” Eisner said after the game. “What he did isn’t surprising at all. He just cleared everybody out and said, ‘I’m going to win it or lose it for us.’ That was the key to the game. The senior took over and got us what we needed.”

A 91-80 win over Indiana State two nights later moved the Jays closer to the title, and then a 69-60 win over Drake in Des Moines on the season’s final night clinched an outright MVC title, their first since 1977.

***

The Clinch is a Cinch … Or Maybe Not

 

Before the game, Barone decided he didn’t need to give one of his patented fire-and-brimstone pregame speeches, saying “I think it’s very obvious that this is the most important game of our season.” Maybe he guessed wrong — the team came out tight, and Farr picked up three quick fouls. With the score knotted at 10 eight minutes in, he headed to the bench and Drake took advantage, building a massive 31-16 lead. As he had earlier in the season at Bradley, Barone trusted Farr not to foul out and put him back in earlier than conventional wisdom suggested. Once again, Farr repaid that trust, and immediately began engineering a comeback, though it would take longer than Jays’ fans fingernails would have preferred.

With 6:50 to play, Drake still led 58-54. And then a funny thing happened: virtually the entire team played a role in a 15-2 run to close out the game, the win, and the championship. Eisner started the run with a three. Harstad took a pass from Roggenburk for a scoop shot that gave them the lead 59-58. Troy Bell grabbed an offensive rebound, made a jumper and then blocked a shot on the other end. Moser hit a three to make it 64-58. Farr hit the clinching free throws, and then the Jays cut down the nets in front of hundreds of their fans who’d made the trek to Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines.

Michael Kelly, then the Sports Editor at the World-Herald, described it thusly:

Barone embraced his wife and daughter behind the bench as the Bluejays celebrated with their fans at midcourt.

“This game tonight really epitomizes the entire season,” said CU athletic director Don Leahy. “If you look back at our season, it was a rocky start, but I don’t think anyone at any time ever gave up. The kids showed tremendous courage, time after time after time. They kept battling back and battling back.”

Dr. Lee Bevilacqua, team physician for more than a quarter – century of Bluejay teams, hugged players in the locker room with tears in his eyes. Leahy at first was too choked up to speak. The players and coaches donned T – shirts bearing the words “Missouri Valley Conference champions” and returned to the court to cut down the nets in the presence of their fans.

“Our kids were written off real early, ” Barone commented afterward. “But they hung in there. This is their championship — these 15 kids, the guys that plugged and plugged.”

***

Traveling to Wichita for the MVC Tournament

 

The MVC Tournament, in 1989, was not the MVC Tournament everyone knows and loves today. Arch Madness was still a few years off; the tourney was held in rotating campus sites, and because of TV, had an off day between the semifinals and the final.

In 1989 the tournament just so happened to be in Wichita, meaning that despite winning the league and being the #1 seed, Creighton could potentially have to play the second-seeded Shockers on their home court in front of their fans for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament.

To top it off, Creighton’s players and coaches nearly missed the postseason awards ceremony when an ice storm shut down Eppley Airfield. It forced them to scramble to find a bus to get them the six hours to Wichita, and by the time they loaded their gear onto the bus and made it south, it was 4:15 PM, with their first-round game at noon the following day. Just another obstacle for a team that had battled obstacles all year long.

Barone said it actually may have worked to their advantage. “If you make a big deal out of all this, it will be a factor. But they were together on the bus. I don’t think it will have any effect on them. What it did was eliminate dead time in the hotel, and I like that a lot.”

It was a good thing they made it in time for the official announcements: Creighton was well represented, as you’d expect for the league champion. James Farr and Bob Harstad were first-team All Valley selections, while Chad Gallagher was a second-team pick. And Tony Barone was named Coach of the Year — recognized for his accomplishments by the same media who had picked the team to finish seventh out of eight teams.

“The one thing I think Tony has shown is a tremendous amount of patience with these kids,” CU assistant coach Dick Fick told the assembled media in Wichita. “It’s really fun when you put together a plan and you don’t vary from it despite the odds, then you see it come to fruition. That’s what Tony has been able to do. One of the keys is that Tony communicates so well with James Farr. They have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.”

“This team has the stamp of him on it,” he continued. “It’s a young team that won’t quit. If you know Tony, he doesn’t even think about it. That’s obviously won us several ball games this year.”

Their first-round matchup was against the 8th seeded Indiana State Shockers, who had gone an abysmal 4-24 and were 0-14 in the league — just the fourth MVC team to go winless since 1950. The Trees had lost 16 straight coming into the Saturday quarterfinal, so of course, they jumped out to a 12-3 lead six minutes into the game as Creighton struggled.

Matt Roggenburk came off the bench to provide a spark, hitting two straight three-pointers on consecutive possessions to cut the deficit to 14-9. Later in the half, still trailing 26-17, Farr started an 8-1 run by stealing the ball and racing down court for a layup; he was fouled and made the free-throw for a three point play. After a Todd Eisner three, Harstad hit a turnaround and Roggenburk hit another three to give Creighton the lead. They would not trail again.

Roggenburk wound up with a career-high 27 points on 6-11 from behind the arc. “We do not have a kid who works more on his shooting than Matt,” Barone explained after the game. “What he’s learned this year is that his defense helps to keep him in the game. He’s played very aggressively on defense, and it’s helped his offense.”

Indiana State coach Ron Greene had a different opinion. “We usually make a star out of somebody who isn’t a star.”

Thanks in large part to Roggenburk’s star turn, Creighton advanced to Sunday’s semifinal. Later in the day, they got a astonishing, massive break when seventh-seeded Illinois State upset Wichita State on their home court to end the Shockers season.

In Sunday’s semifinal, Creighton returned to a recipe for disaster that had burned them numerous times earlier in the season — namely, getting a big lead and (nearly) blowing it. They built a 29-19 lead in the first half by attacking Drake’s man-to-man defense where they were most vulnerable, in the paint. Harstad and Gallagher each scored 10 points in the first half, leading Drake to switch to a 2-3 zone in the second half.

The result of that defensive switch was a carbon copy of what happened when Drake had run a triangle-and-two against them earlier in the season. Creighton started settling for three pointers, and missing. The Jays went 6-22 from the floor, and 2-12 from behind the arc, after halftime. Part of that could also be chalked up to injury trouble. Harstad missed a chunk of the second half after getting the wind knocked out of him in a violent collision. Roggenburk sprained his ankle late in the first half and played only a few minutes in the second half. And Gallagher had severely bruised his tailbone in the quarterfinal on Saturday, leaving him sore — though he played through it.

As all great teams do, Creighton made just enough plays down the stretch to eek out a win, despite the struggles. Todd Eisner matched Drake’s Terrell Jackson three-for-three in the final five minutes, and then Roggenburk — brought back in late in the game for his shooting ability despite the ankle trouble — blanketed Jackson on the final possession with Creighton up 52-49. Roggenburk prevented him from catching the ball and forced Drake to go to their second option, Eric Berger, whose shot clanged off the rim with five seconds left. Two free throws from Farr sealed the win and moved Creighton into the final.

The teams had Monday off, as the MVC Tourney paused to allow ESPN to televise their title game. The day off allowed lots of media speculation about Creighton’s at-large chances, which most agreed were non-existent. The RPI hadn’t been invented yet in 1989, so the Sagarin Rating in USA Today was the measuring stick most fans and media used to rate teams. By that measure, Creighton was 90th, with a schedule strength of 117.

The wait was worth it; the 1989 title game remains one of the all-time classics — the second instant classic these two rivals had played in as many weeks.

***

An Instant Classic

 

Southern Illinois’ Kai Nurnberger made 6 of 7 three-pointers in the first half as the Salukis raced to a 40-35 lead at the break. Creighton’s Matt Roggenburk was his equal in the second half, making 6 of 8 after the break. Two of them came before the first media timeout of the half, helping Creighton keep pace with the still-hot Salukis. Finally, the Jays took their first lead at the 14:36 mark when Chad Gallagher nailed a jump hook to make it 48-47 Creighton.

For the next ten minutes, the teams traded baskets, with neither team able to grab an advantage of more than one possession. Then, with 5:23 to go, Bob Harstad started an 8-0 run with back-to-back jumpers. After James Farr made two free throws with just under three minutes to play, it was 73-65 Creighton.

The previous week, SIU had led by six with 45 seconds to play, only to see the lead slip away and the Jays win in overtime. This time, the tables were turned. With the score 77-72 Creighton and 1:33 to go, Todd Eisner misfired on an inbounds pass, giving the Salukis the ball. SIU’s Jerry Jones was fouled going after the ball, and made one of two free throws; unfortunately, the Jays were unable to secure the rebound of the missed second attempt, and Freddie McSwain nailed a jumper to cut the lead to 77-75. Then Farr, after killing as much of the clock as the 45 second clock allowed, turned the ball over driving to the basket with 26 seconds left.

Sterling Mahan was the beneficiary of the turnover, and took advantage in transition to get free of the Creighton defense. He made a layup to tie the game at 77 with just 13 seconds left. In the biggest game of the year, old habits were dying hard — Creighton had blown another lead late in game.

Funny thing about habits — some of them can be good, too. Farr, as he had numerous times all year long, wanted the ball in his hands for the last shot. He demanded a chance to make up for his turnover. And so he took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court, and when he reached the paint on the other end, he split two defenders and put up a 13-foot jumper. It rolled around the rim at least four excruciating times, and by the time it had dropped through the net, just two seconds remained. It was 79-77 Creighton.

Southern Illinois called timeout not once but twice to draw up a last-gasp play — the second time to adjust their call after seeing the personnel Creighton would be employing defensively. Their 6’8″ forward, Rick Shipley, would inbound the ball, and he would have to see around — and get the ball over — Creighton’s 7’0″ Bill O’Dowd. Shipley got off a beauty of a full-court pass, and it somehow not only found SIU’s Jerry Jones, but the pass led him to a spot on the court where he could get a great open look at the bucket for a game-winning three pointer. He pulled up, shot the ball…

…and Chad Gallagher, who had been covering SIU center Tony Harvey in the paint, summoned something from within to jump further than he seemingly ever had in his Creighton career. At the apex of his leap, several feet from where he’d launched from, his fingertips met the ball and swatted it away. You could call it destiny. Gallagher called it luck. “I really thought I had a very good chance of making a clean block,” he told the press afterward. “So I just went for it. But, basically, I probably just got lucky.”

Luck, determination, destiny — whichever adjective you prefer, the glorious result was the same. Their 20th win, an MVC Tournament Championship, and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

***

A Rally for the Champions

 

When the team returned to campus, a rally in the Old Gym was held to welcome them back. After co-captains James Farr and Matt Roggenburk presented the trophy to Creighton President Michael Morrison SJ, the president was effusive with his praise.

“We at Creighton are extremely proud of you. We are proud of you not because of your achievements, but because of who you are. The determination, the commitment to keep going. People said you were a seventh – place team. You showed them. People said you can’t beat Southern Illinois three times. You showed them.”

Then Barone took the mic.

“This is a dream. Four years ago, we dreamt that this would happen. I’m not convinced that it has happened. I’m still a little bit in awe of what has happened. But I have a great deal of respect for these young men.”

“They’re overachievers. That’s a great compliment to them. It’s not a matter of whether they’re good enough, whether they pass well enough or shoot well enough. It’s simply a matter of one thing, and it’s the determination of this basketball team. If you’re going to beat us, it’s going to be when the buzzer goes off.”

***

Heavy Underdogs to the Missouri Tigers

 

KMTV opted not to show the Selection Show live, instead choosing to air the syndicated postgame show from the Big Eight Tournament in Kansas City. The preemption, something unimaginable today, meant that Creighton couldn’t hold a Selection Show Rally on campus since there was nothing to watch. A scroll of text on the screen over Raycom coverage of the Big Eight just wasn’t quite the same thing.

Ironic, then, that the Jays were matched up a Big Eight team in Missouri. It was a matchup that Steve Wieberg, a bracketologist for USA Today before there was a word for such a thing, had predicted right down to the correct seed lines.

The Tigers, ranked sixth in the AP poll, were a 14-point favorite, and it was tough sledding to find a pundit who thought Creighton had a chance of being competitive — not winning, merely being competitive. From Dick Vitale to Al McGuire, a Missouri win was all but assured.

It didn’t sit well with Barone, and he let them know about it. Addressing the media at Reunion Arena in Dallas, he told them exactly what he thought about their predictions “Nobody gives us a chance. I don’t look at it that way. There are upsets all over the final 64. You will see them at every site. Who is to say we can’t upset Missouri?”

He was on a roll. “Missouri is favored by 14. Does that mean Missouri is better than us? Does that mean Missouri has better players? Yes, that’s what it means. But the question is: Does Missouri have the force that we have? If they do, fine. They will probably beat us. But even that wouldn’t take anything away from the accomplishment of these kids.”

“Look, we’re a team of shortcomings. All of our players have shortcomings. We have done a good job of playing to our strengths and avoiding the shortcomings. That’s why we’ve won 20 games.”

He was standing up for his players and his program, and they loved him for it.

***

“We’re For Real”

 

The gameplan for beating Missouri was the same gameplan Creighton had employed all year long: create looks for Gallagher and Harstad in the paint, hope Roggenburk, Moser and Eisner could hit shots from outside, and that Farr could score in driving lanes.

And for 30 minutes against the nation’s sixth ranked team, it was working.

After a first half with 12 lead changes and nine ties, Creighton took a 39-37 lead into the locker room. Chad Gallagher was nearly unstoppable, scoring 16 points in the first half on 8-11 shooting. The Tigers made stopping him a priority at halftime, and they succeeded — he scored just six points in the second half, though he made 3 of the 5 shots he attempted. Missouri’s defense simply denied him the ball.

The assumption by the CBS crew calling the game was that the Tigers had bought into the media hype — hype they had helped create! Interim coach Rich Daly confirmed as much after the game, “We got out there in the first half and…didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm. The players were just kind of ho-humming it. So at halftime, we all got together and decided we were going to go out there and play a game.”

Gallagher was more blunt.

“They went in at halftime knowing that we’re for real.”

Even still, the first ten minutes of the second half were nearly indistinguishable from the first 20. More lead changes, more ties, as the game went back and forth, both teams trading punches (figuratively, of course). Gallagher hit a turnaround jumper with 9:07 to play to give Creighton a 62-61 lead; it would be the last lead Creighton had, as they went on an extended drought and were outscored 24-7 to end the game. Barone chalked it up to the physically demanding Tigers simply wearing his team down.

The final score of 85-69 is hugely deceiving. For 30 minutes, Creighton was every bit the equal of the powerhouse Tigers, until they simply ran out of gas. Barone summed up the feelings of many Bluejay supporters afterward. “I’m disappointed because I thought we had a chance to win this game. But I’m proud of my guys. If we played them nine times, they would probably beat us eight. But tonight might have been the one night. I thought we had a good chance.”

Creighton’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1981 had ended with a first round defeat at the hands of the nation’s sixth ranked team, but instead of hanging their heads, they celebrated all they had accomplished — and deservedly so. The Bluejays finished the season 20-11, 11-3 in the league with both a regular season and a tournament championship, and would return enough contributors to be considered favorites to make it back. The only significant departure, James Farr, their outstanding point guard, would move to the bench to become the Jays graduate assistant in 1989-90, keeping his leading influence close to the team.

Next Tuesday, the next chapter in WBR’s series “Great Teams” begins a three-part look back at the 1990-91 Creighton Bluejays.

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