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Great Teams: 1990-91 (Part II)

This is the second in a new 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 the series with Part II on the 1990-91 squad; if you missed it, catch up on Part I.

***

Harstad Determined to Finally Win an Opener


UT-San Antonio came into the Jays season opener with three games under their belt, a 2-1 record, and a lofty ranking of 27 in the Sagarin Power Ratings in USA Today. They returned four starters from their 22-7 team of a year prior, and had scored 132, 97 and 89 points in their first three games. And to make matters worse, Creighton’s seniors had never won a season opener, losing at Cal in 1987-88, at Nebraska in 1988-89, and at home to Coppin State in 1989-90.

Bob Harstad was determined to make sure he didn’t end his career 0-4 in openers, and turned in a miraculous performance that sheer numbers do not do justice to. He was one missed free throw away from perfect, making 13 of 13 field goals and 12-13 free throws en route to 38 points. “He was tremendous,” Creighton Assistant Coach Dick Fick told the media after the game. “I love to see him come into a place like this, in the Big Ten area, and play well because of the publicity and the people that see him will help him even more. And he deserves it.”

The Jays shot 54% from the floor, out-rebounded UTSA 53-26, and held the high-scoring Roadrunners to 47 points on 27% shooting. The 93-47 win was the Jays largest margin of win since 1973, and the worst loss in UTSA history. It also set up a game between Iowa and Creighton in the championship of the Amana-Hawkeye Classic the next night.

Tom Davis and the Hawkeyes had watched Harstad decimate the Roadrunner defense the night before, and along with Chad Gallagher, he became the focus of their defensive effort. They employed a sagging zone that allowed all-Big Ten center and future lottery pick Acie Earl to bottle up the paint, and Creighton was forced to look outside for offense. Duan Cole led the Jays with 18 points on 4-8 shooting from three-point range, but the swarming Tom Davis full-court press — which those late-80s and early-90s Iowa teams played to perfection — led to a whopping 21 Creighton turnovers.

An 11-0 Iowa run made it 70-54, the Jays rallied twice to cut the deficit to five; after the latter at 78-73, James Moses and Acie Earl iced the game at the free throw line. Despite the 83-77 loss, Harstad was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player, the first time in the nine-year history of the event that a player from the losing team won those honors. Barone was happy for his senior, saying afterward, “I think it’s a wonderful statement by the tournament that a kid from a losing team can win the MVP. It might be one of the first times that has ever happened in the history of tournaments.”

Playing a team that would go on to earn an NCAA Tourney berth in their home gym in front of a feisty, sold out crowd was a good thing, even if it was a loss. “We learned from that game,” Barone commented the next day. “It was a good game for us. But now we’ve got to put that behind us and go ahead and attack Missouri. The next two games will be physical and will identify in our minds how aggressive we have to be to win the championship in our league. We couldn’t have two better games for that purpose.”

***

A Big Eight Gauntlet

 

Norm Stewart brought his Tigers to Omaha three days later for a game billed as a showdown between two great players: Big Eight Player of the Year Doug Smith and MVC Player of the Year Bob Harstad. Smith was a first-team All-American who averaged 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds the year before, and Barone heaped praise on him, saying “I think he’s going to be the best player we’ll see in the arena this year from an opposing team.”

The 26th ranked (they’d fallen out of the Top 25 the day before, but were tops in the “Also Receiving Votes” list) Tigers led most of the night, as Smith was every bit as good as Creighton had feared. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds and blocked four Harstad shots in the first half alone, but his mere presence opened up looks for teammates. The Tigers held a 52-46 edge with 8:03 left when Smith picked up his fourth foul. Creighton immediately rolled off a 9-1 run with Smith on the bench, and even after he came back in, they continued the hot streak which turned into a 20-5 game-deciding run.

“We knew as soon as he was out of the game that we had to take advantage of it,” Harstad told the media afterward. “When a team like Missouri gives you an advantage, you have to take it or you’re doomed.”

Harstad got top billing before the game, but it was Duan Cole who stole the show, scoring 10 points in the final 5:04. The first of those came on a three-pointer that moved Creighton into the lead for good, a shot that sent the Civic crowd of 7,653 into a frenzy. Todd Eisner also played a key role, as the four Creighton senior starters (Harstad, Gallagher, Eisner, Plautz) combined for 43 points and 26 rebounds. After the 74-68 win, Creighton moved on to the second half of their Big Eight Gauntlet: a trip down I-80 to play the Huskers.

The intra-state rivalry was starting to gain national attention, as both teams were perennial contenders in their respective leagues, and both came into the game off of huge wins of national powers — Nebraska had just upended Michigan State earlier in the week. The previous year, the game was nationally televised on ESPN in primetime, and the resulting Jays win was upsetting to the Huskers. Nebraska senior Keith Moody told the World-Herald the day before the game, “We choked last year’s game away against them, which was bad enough. But it was on ESPN, too, and we had told everyone we knew to watch. So we owe them a major defeat for that.”

Senior center Rich King went one step further, and predicted a blowout Husker win in the Lincoln Journal-Star beforehand. It’s not bragging if you back it up, and sadly for the Jays, Nebraska did exactly what King promised. “I told you so! They call themselves the Dynamic Duo,” King boasted afterward. “But we’ve got the Super Friends. We’ve got seven or eight guys compared to their Dynamic Duo.”

The 97-63 loss does not deserve one more word written about it.

***

“Our Confidence Has Absolutely Been Affected”

 

Tony Barone and his staff did the only thing they could do after such a humiliating defeat. “We yelled at them. We screamed at them. We told them all the things we did wrong and then we said, ‘That’s it. We’re never going to talk about that game again.’ ”

Still, the loss stung, and it was hard to forget. “I can’t tell you we haven’t been affected by it because we have,” Barone told the World-Herald on the morning of their next game, eleven days later following finals break. “Our confidence has absolutely been affected.”

The eleven-day break came at a good time. “After the way we got drilled by Nebraska, I think the time off was good for us,” Barone said at his weekly teleconference. “We needed to re-evaluate whether we were alive or not.”

A road trip to South Alabama was the first game following the break, another game against a talented team. The Jaguars had lost to Nolan Richardson’s #2 Arkansas Razorbacks earlier in the week, but had out-rebounded the Razorbacks — this is not a misprint — 60-35. That was a scary proposition with Chad Gallagher expected to be on the bench after spraining his ankle in practice three days before the game.

The Jays schemed to play without Gallagher, but the senior surprised everyone by demanding to play. “Chad really pleased us,” Barone said in the World-Herald game recap. “We didn’t think he would play tonight. He couldn’t walk on Saturday. He had to have toughness to go out there and play.”

The astounding thing was, he didn’t just play, he played like there was nothing wrong. Gallagher scored a team-high 23 points on 9-11 shooting from the floor, went 5-5 from the line, and grabbed seven rebounds in the 89-76 win.

Three home games in seven days were set to follow, including the MVC opener in the middle of what normally be non-conference play. Creighton had squeezed Notre Dame and Siena into the February schedule in order to get those teams to play them, which meant playing conference games in December. First up: Tulsa.

Against the Golden Hurricane, Creighton was 1-22 from three-point range — that’s .045%, in case you’re wondering — as they threw up enough bricks to pave a sidewalk. Duan Cole was the only Bluejay to make one, going 1-8, and his lone connection came with 1:51 to play in the game. Rounding out the ugliness: Matt Petty was 0 for 6, Todd Eisner 0 for 3, Darin Plautz 0 for 4 and Chad Gallagher 0 for 1.

The loss dropped them to 3-3 and 0-1 in the conference, and left their coach fuming mad. “That’s totally unacceptable. There’s no reason in the world for it. You don’t play like that. You can’t go into (the Tulsa) game with anything but a tremendous desire to win. I didn’t see that in our guys at all.”

His rant before two TV cameras from local stations continued. “It’s a lack of purpose, a lack of intensity and focus – what you need to do to win. It’s not good enough to say you want to win. You have to do things to win. We’re swimming right now. We’ve got some guys who can’t swim and we don’t have any life jackets on. It’s a problem and I don’t think it’s one individual, two individuals or three individuals. It’s an attitude that we’re very concerned about on our basketball team.”

UTEP, scheduled to play in Omaha on Sunday, December 23, was unable to get out of El Paso due to a blizzard, necessitating the game be moved to later in the season. That meant another week-long layoff for the Jays, and no chance to get the bitter taste out of their mouths from the Tulsa defeat before Christmas.

***

The Dynamic Duo Shines on ESPN

 

Louisiana Tech, with seven straight 20-win seasons and seven straight postseason berths, was next on the Jays killer slate, and with ESPN in town to show the game to a national audience as part of their Wednesday Doubleheader, it was shaping up as another big game in a non-conference schedule full of big games.

Tech was led by P.J. Brown, a 6’11” junior who averaged 15.2 points and 10.1 rebounds. Brown would go on to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft the next year, and played 16 seasons in the league. But the national TV audience instead saw firsthand why Harstad and Gallagher were called the Dynamic Duo, as they combined for 52 of Creighton’s 87 points. It was a hard-fought, scrappy performance by the entire team, as the Jays finally re-discovered their winning formula.

Guard Matt Petty, who had a big night shooting, explained the victory to ESPN’s crew at courtside after the game. “We had to get back the way Creighton is capable of playing, and quit trying to please other people. We don’t have the athletes to go out and run the court, dunk and shoot the three on the pull up. We’ve got guys who can get down and play defense as hard as we can and rebound. We had to get back to that mold.”

Another win followed three nights later in Cleveland, as the Jays won consecutive games for the first time all season. Chad Gallagher scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the 87-64 win over the Vikings of Cleveland State. Then they went to Springfield to tangle with MVC newcomer Southwest Missouri State in their first-ever meeting as conference foes. Charlie Spoonhour’s Bears had won 87% of their home games under Spoon, going 106-16, meaning the Jays had an uphill climb to avoid dropping to 0-2 in the league.

Falling behind by 14 midway through the second half, things looked bleak when Harstad fouled out with 10:44 to play. Chad Gallagher brought them back, however, leading the team with 27 points, and the Jays rallied to cut the deficit to 72-71 with 7.5 seconds remaining. In the huddle, Barone drew up a play for a game-winning shot.

Duan Cole took the inbounds pass and dribbled furiously up the right side, across half court, as SMS’ Arnold Bernard flanked him. Exactly as it was drawn up, Cole sucked the defense in with him and then dished it back to Matt Petty. Unfortunately, his shot was blocked at the horn to preserve the 72-71 win for SMS.

“We did exactly what we wanted,” Barone said on his postgame radio show. “Duan penetrated. We wanted him to take it to the hole and pitch it back. We got exactly the play we wanted to get. But you can’t get that shot blocked at the end of the game. You’ve got to fake the shot, take the dribble and you’re wide open.” He didn’t, and the Jays were now in a hole at 0-2 in the league. Worse, SMS was 3-0 with a win over Creighton on their resume.

***

A Sensational Individual Performance, Another Loss

 

Inconsistency from one game to the next continued to plague the team. Harstad and Gallagher combined for 55 points, 27 rebounds and 70% shooting in a 98-74 blowout win over Bradley on January 5 in Omaha. But in their next game, Gallagher was roughed up by Iowa State’s bruising big man Victor Alexander, the Jays fell behind early, and were never really in the game.

That’s not to say the Iowa State game wasn’t without excitement. Down 80-69 with 2:17 to play, Duan Cole put on an offensive show the likes of which have rarely been seen. He scored 16 points in the final 2:17, scoring on a barrage of threes, driving layups, and circus shots.

“I have never seen anyone shoot better than that down the stretch,” said Iowa State Coach Johnny Orr in his postgame press conference. “He was sensational. We were right on him for every shot but one, right in his face. He made it a heck of an exciting game. For entertainment, good gracious, there isn’t anybody who could say they didn’t enjoy that game, although I know the Creighton fans don’t like to lose.” Ah yes, because despite Cole’s efforts, Creighton did lose, 97-88, falling to 6-5 overall.

***

A Historic Week on the Hilltop

 

Despite the loss to the Cyclones, it was a historic week on the Hilltop. On January 9, Creighton’s athletic offices moved into the Vinardi Center — a 15,000 square foot addition on the east side of the original Old Gym, which had originally opened in June of 1916. The athletic offices had been in the Kiewit Fitness Center since it had opened in 1978; the move took them back to their historical roots at 24th and Burt.

No sooner had the Vinardi Center opened than the Jays picked up their historic 1,000th win over Drake at Vets Auditorium in Des Moines. That it came against one of their oldest rivals, a team they continued playing even during their independent years, was only fitting. With an overall record of 1,000-695, their winning percentage was a robust .590, impressive for any school with 74 years of games under its belt.

“It speaks very well for Creighton basketball history,” Barone, who at the time was 85-79 in his sixth season as Creighton’s coach, said on his weekly radio show. “I don’t think Creighton gets the credit it deserves. To win 1,000 basketball games, you have to be very successful for a number of years. You look back at coaches like Red McManus and Eddie Sutton and realize how much a factor they were in that rise to 1,000. Our wins, whatever they turn out to be, are a small part of it.”

Win No. 1000 came in rousing fashion, as the Jays jumped out to a 21-5 lead early behind Duan Cole, who picked up where he’d left off against Iowa State, making two foul shots on their first possession, then hitting three pointers on each of the next two trips down the court. After Darin Plautz and Matt Petty added two treys apiece, the lead swelled to 37-13 with 8:21 to play and Barone switched up the game plan. “We wanted to shoot the threes early,” Barone said. “We jumped off to a big lead and we started to coach – we decided to get the ball in to Bob and Chad, which seemed to be a halfway intelligent idea at the time but turned out to be pretty foolish.”

The lead began to dwindle, and by the time they tried to go back to the outside shot, their shooters had lost the touch. By halftime, the once 24-point lead was down to 14, and shortly after the half, the lead was cut to 12. After calling a quick timeout to regroup, Creighton went on a 10-0 run to reassert themselves, and were never seriously threatened again. Barone even had time to get into it with a portly heckler several rows behind the bench, who yelled down to the CU coach, “Hey, Tony, get some suspenders so you don’t have to keep hiking your pants up like that!” Laughing, Barone turned around and yelled back, “You should talk, pal!”

***

A Season on the Brink

 

At 7-5 and now 2-2 in the league, Creighton looked to get over .500 in the MVC as Wichita State paid a visit. For the second straight game, they jumped out to a massive early lead — this time, they pitched a shutout for the first seven minutes, and ultimately built a 26-5 lead. “I thought we played really good defense from the start of the game,” Barone explained after the game on the postgame radio interview. “We got off to a good start defensively because I think we’ve spent some time figuring out that a good basketball team has to play great defense. It’s the second game in a row that I thought we came out and played good ‘D’.”

Their leader on defense was the unsung Darin Plautz, who had completely shut down the opponent’s leading scorer for the second straight game. “He’s not unsung to our team,” Barone said in the next day’s World-Herald. “This is the second game in a row he has been awesome on defense. He should be the player of the week in the Valley, without any question, off of his effort against Drake and tonight – absolutely tremendous defensive intensity.” Teammate Matt Petty agreed. “Darin has been there all year and he keeps getting better and better. He’s the best guy we’ve got and we rely on his defense. He’s incredible on defense.”

A Saturday afternoon tilt at Illinois State on ESPN was next on the agenda, a big game in more ways than one. Tony Barone had never won in Normal, going 0-6 as the Jays coach. Actually, Creighton had never won a regular season game in Normal, period — EVER — going 1 – 10 overall in Normal with the only win coming in the semifinals of the 1984 conference tournament. Never mind that Illinois State had started the season 0-12, including dropping their first three MVC games. They had Creighton’s number at home, and both teams knew it.

The Redbirds trailed by seven at the half, but surged to take a nine-point lead behind the physical play of Mike VandeGarde. ISU Red had no players taller than 6’7″, so they had to do “other things” to get position for boards — and VandeGarde was the epitome of that style. “There was physical play inside,” ISU’s VandeGarde said afterward, “and the refs let us play physical. They didn’t call that many fouls. That’s just the way the refs called the game.” Barone saw it differently. “I have no comment about anything to do with the officials,” he said in the press room after the game, his face getting red as he held in one of his legendary tirades. One of the reporters commented that Harstad had not shot a single free throw, an odd statistic for a physical inside player such as him. “I’m sure he didn’t get fouled,” Barone gruffily commented, rolling his eyes before storming out of the room.

It was a 71-68 loss, and simply put, Creighton’s season was on the brink. They were 8-6 overall, 3-3 in the league, and could probably only afford to lose one more game if they had any hopes of winning the MVC. To the surprise of a lot of people who had watched them stumble through 14 games, that’s exactly what they did, as they rolled off one of the most extraordinary stretches of basketball in Creighton’s 74-year hoops history.

It began with a 78-68 win in Peoria over Bradley on the evening of January 21. Starting on that night at Carver Arena, Creighton would win 12 of their final 13 regular season games, sweep through the MVC Tournament, and enter the NCAA Tournament having won 15 of 16 and seven straight.

Tomorrow in Part III, Creighton has winning streaks of eight and seven to close out the season, wins the MVC Regular Season and Tournament crowns, and upsets 15th ranked New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

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