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Great Teams: 1990-91 (Part III)

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 III on the 1990-91 squad; if you missed it, catch up on Part I and Part II.

***

A Scary Situation

 

Just 1:25 into the Jays game with Bradley on January 21, Matt Petty was running on a fast break when he collided with the Braves’ James Hamilton. After committing the charge, Petty was unintentionally undercut by another player, knocking him to the ground where his head violently hit the court. Then, Hamilton landed on top of him, striking a second blow to his head.

For 25 minutes, everything stopped as medical personnel immobilized Petty, unsure of what injuries he may have sustained, as he was knocked unconscious. His teammates, along with Petty’s parents who happened to be in attendance, watched in solemn hope that he would be OK, and the game was delayed while they waited for an ambulance to arrive.

“It was so upsetting,” said a still shaken Bob Harstad after the game. “You’re so excited for the game, and when something serious like that happens it takes the pizzazz right out of you.”

Barone said it was the scariest thing he’d ever witnessed on a basketball court. “He was out when we went out on the court. It’s very scary when you see a kid go down, and when I went out there his eyes were crossed. It was very scary.”

Petty had suffered a concussion, but sustained no broken bones or neurological injuries. As play resumed, though, his teammates didn’t know that, and they could be forgiven if their thoughts were elsewhere. “It had a terrible effect on us the first five minutes back into the game,” Barone admitted on his postgame radio show. “I thought our kids were real tentative, and when you see that happen you’re going to get a little nervous.”

Todd Eisner was asked to play big minutes in Petty’s absence, and despite going on two bad knees, he played a pivotal role once again. He’d played a total of 15 minutes in the three games since re-injuring his knee against Iowa State, and was basically getting by on guts at this point in his career. His 11 first-half points lifted the Jays emotionally, with his trio of three pointers all coming at key moments — none moreso than the last one, which splashed in with four seconds left in the half to give Creighton a 35-27 lead at the break.

His teammates marveled at the effort. “He’s playing with 90 percent heart and 10 percent ability,” Harstad said after the game. “He’s playing on two bad knees but ‘Ice’ is one of the most if not the most important player on our team.”

Midway through the second half, with the Jays clinging to a 56-54 lead, Chad Gallagher missed a free throw and the ball was going to sail out of bounds. Eisner, bad knees and all, hurdled his body towards the ball, and flipped it behind him to Latrell Wrightsell, who dished it to Gallagher for a dunk. It hurt, but the play was one of a thousand little things “Ice” did to help the Jays win games. “My knee hurts a lot right now,” Eisner said in the World-Herald. “But I would take my knee hurting every day after a game if I could contribute like I contributed tonight.”

The 76-68 win was the start of an eight-game winning streak, and of a run where they won 15 of 16. Miraculously, Creighton would lose just twice more all season, with one of the losses coming in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Dr. Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua, the longtime volunteer team physician, stayed with Petty at St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, while the rest of the team headed back to Omaha. Two days later they returned to Omaha, Petty sporting two giant lumps on his head and no memory of the incident — or of anything until about 24 hours after the injury.

***

History For Harstad

 

Harstad entered the next game against Indiana State just 23 points shy of becoming Creighton’s all-time leading scorer. “It’s really not a big deal to me,” he told Steve Sinclair of the World-Herald. “Right now it isn’t. It might be in the future — something way down the road I can look back on and something I can be proud of. But right now it has nothing to do with our team objectives, and our team objectives are to win the Valley and to win the tournament. The personal goals are really secondary.”

There were some naysayers who believed Harstad’s mark should carry an asterisk because Bob Portman scored his points in just three years due to the NCAA requiring freshmen to sit out their first year during that era. Barone called that talk “baloney”, pointing out that Harstad was rarely the sole focus of the offense, playing one year with Rod Mason (who led the team with 20.3 points per game in 1987-88), two years with James Farr and all four years with Chad Gallagher. “You have to remember he has been playing with Chad, who is in the top five and probably is going to end up second in Creighton’s history,” Barone said. “If you take either one of them away over a three-year period, I imagine the other one might have broken that record in three years.”

A season-high crowd of 9,504 came out to the Civic, and when he broke the record with 8:09 left in the game, he ran up court with his fist in the air as the crowd went bonkers. The resulting 90-second standing ovation stopped the game, as teammates came up to congratulate him and the Sycamore players saluted him from their bench. “The crowd was great,” Harstad said later. “That made it all the better. It’s something I can look back on and remember and be proud of. But right now, I’ve just got to put it behind me. We’ve got a lot more games left.”

The record-breaking shot might have been one of the more improbable shots of his career, ironically enough. With the ball in the lane, he pump faked not once but twice, had the ball tipped out of his hands, regained possession, and banked in a shot of the glass as he was falling away. As he explained after the game, “I got it hit out of my hand, so I just tipped it in. It’s probably the luckiest shot I ever made.”

As for the 90-second delay to allow the fans to show their appreciation, there’s a funny story about that as well. Earlier in the day, Creighton asked Indiana State for permission to stop the game should Harstad break the record, but due to a miscommunication, believed head coach Tates Locke had denied the request. As word of his supposed denial leaked through the arena during the first half, some CU students took it upon themselves to change his mind. And so it was that at halftime, with Harstad at 19 points and all but assured of breaking the mark, a group of industrious students left a hand-written note on Locke’s chair on the bench. What did that note say?

“We would appreciate if you would let Bob enjoy the moment. This kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time. Thanks, CU fans.”

Locke smiled upon reading the letter, and immediately informed the officials that the game should be stopped when Harstad set the record. And so it was.

***

Matt Petty’s Return Sparks Jays to Victory

 

At 5-3 in the league, the Jays needed a win over the defending champion Salukis — who had swept Creighton the year before to claim the crown — to keep pace with the 6-2 SMS Bears. Dick Fick and Rick Johnson would coach the game on an interim basis, as Barone left for Chicago to be with his ailing mother. Talking with reporters before leaving for Chicago, he said his absence would not be a factor. “That won’t be an issue in the game at all. Kids play, anyway. Coaches have very little impact on the game other than knowing when to call a timeout or maybe using a substitution here and there, and we don’t substitute all that well, anyway.”

The team received an unexpected lift when Matt Petty was cleared to return to the lineup, and the guard combined with Duan Cole to score 15 of the Jays final 16 points. The play of the guards was all the more important given that Darin Plautz fouled out with 4:33 to play, and Chad Gallagher followed suit with 3:58 to play. Trailing 67-62 when Gallagher was DQ’d, Cole promptly drove the lane and made a scoop shot, then drew a foul on the next possession and made both free throws. Following an SIU turnover, Petty drilled a three-pointer to make it 69-67 Creighton. SIU countered with a bucket from Tyrone Bell to tie it at 69, and Petty responded with another three to put Creighton back ahead.

“Matt’s threes were just incredible,” Cole said on the postgame radio show. “They hit nothing but nylon. They set the tone for us.”

SIU wasn’t done, though. They scratched and clawed and with 12 seconds remaining, the score was 76-75 Creighton after a three-pointer from Rick Shipley. It took five seconds for SIU to foul the Jays on the inbounds pass, which wisely went to their best free throw shooter:

Matt Petty.

You can’t make this stuff up. “I was nervous,” Petty commented later. “I have to admit I was shaking. Their crowd was behind the basket. I just concentrated and tried to stick them.” He made them both, and the Jays won 78-75 in another classic SIU-CU duel, with Petty as the hero in his return from a scary injury.

A 71-57 win over Illinois State made four straight victories, and then the Jays stepped out of MVC play temporarily for a trip to upstate New York to play Siena. When they arrived in Albany, they discovered Chad Gallagher had come down with the flu, but the big man played through it and had a career night. He made 16-23 field goals, scoring a season-high 36 points in leading the Jays to their fifth straight win, a 85-78 victory over the Saints.

Dick Fick was giddy after the game. “The Bluejays are on a roll. You’ve got to like it. Reports of our death were greatly exaggerated.”

They made it six straight by beating Indiana State 71-68 in Terre Haute four days later, as Gallagher once again led the charge with 27 points and 8 rebounds. Now 14-6 overall and 8-3 in the MVC, the Jays had set up a showdown with first-place SMS in Omaha, who sat just one game ahead of them in the standings.

***

Double Overtime, Four Men Down

 

Two years prior, the season had turned with a 102-100 overtime win over SIU, as the Jays moved into position to win the MVC. In 1990-91, the moment when Creighton seemed to grab ahold of the conference once again occurred in an overtime game against their closest rival in the standings. This one would be a double-overtime thriller that remains one of the great games of the Civic Era.

SMS had the Jays staggering with 5:29 to play, as they held on to a 67-58 lead. Over the next four minutes, Creighton slowly but surely pulled closer and closer, and with 58 seconds left, they trailed by just two at 71-69. They missed a shot, and as the Bears raced back up court with the ball hoping to run some clock, Matt Petty chased down the ballhandler and tied him up. The possession arrow belonged to the Jays, and they took the ball; Chad Gallagher made two free throws to tie it after being fouled with 44 seconds on the clock.

Charlie Spoonhour, the SMS head coach, drew up a play to get a shot for his senior point guard Arnold Bernard, who had 25 points and 9 assists in the game. After draining the clock, Bernard made his move with six seconds left, and launched a floater in the lane with two ticks left. The shot was wide left, and the game went to OT.

In the first overtime, Creighton would lose four of its starters. Todd Eisner re-injured his notoriously balky right knee with 3:37 to go. With 2:46 to play, Darin Plautz fouled out after scoring 14 points and giving out eight assists in 42 minutes. Gallagher was the next one to exit stage right, fouling out on a terrible charging call with 1:48 to go. TV replays clearly showed the SMS defender moving his feet at the point of contact, but the call stood, despite the very loud and very long protestations of Tony Barone. And then with 1:17 to play, Duan Cole picked up his fifth foul, too, leaving Bob Harstad as the only starter remaining.

Down 79-77 and down four starters, Latrell Wrightsell forced Bernard, the outstanding SMS point guard, into an over-and-back violation with 44 seconds to play. Then Wrightsell found Harstad cutting to the basket on a pick-and-roll with 31 seconds left, tying the game at 79. Again faced with the last possession in a tie game, Spoonhour this time drew up the play for Darryl Reid, whose 10-footer missed with four seconds left. Creighton grabbed the rebound, and the game was headed for a second overtime.

Their lineup for the overtime period? Harstad, Petty, Wrightsell, Bill O’Dowd, and seldom-used freshman guard Derek Bain. At the start of the second OT, Bain stepped into a passing lane and stole the ball, then fed Petty in transition for a three-pointer to make it 82-79 Creighton. And then Harstad decided, as the only starter still standing, it was time to put the team on his back.

“At that time of the game, you can’t be tentative,” he told the media afterward. “We had come too far. I told myself, ‘I’m going to shoot the ball.'” First, he made a turnaround to make it 84-81. After an SMS bucket, he put the ball on the floor and drove to the rim, making a layup to give them a 86-83 lead. Two SMS free throws followed, and then Harstad shot a jumper over two defenders to make it 88-85 Jays with 1:27 to go.

On the next possession, the inexperienced Bain was fouled, and he missed both free throws badly. Luckily, SMS could not convert on their end. Unluckily, Barone had no other options left on his bench, so the freshman who had played just 33 minutes all year and who was clearly rattled by the enormity of the moment had to stay in the game. As the Jays prepared to inbound the ball, SMS looked for one guy to foul: Bain.

“The first time, I was nervous, very nervous. I was praying on the way back down the court that if I got another chance I wasn’t going to be nervous and I was going to hit them,” he told reporters in the locker room later. Bain got that chance moments later when SMS did indeed foul him again; a glance at the Creighton bench’s reaction could have sunk a lesser man. “When the guy fouled me again,” Bain recounted, “I looked over to the (Creighton) bench and some of the guys were clapping and some were looking like, ‘Oh – Oh.’

“The crowd cheered me on. I looked over to the bench, pointed to them and said, ‘I’m going to make them.’ I went to the line. I wasn’t nervous at all. I put them down.”

The throws made it 90-85, and after Bain rebounded an errant SMS shot on the next trip down, Creighton was able to ice a double-overtime, 91-87 victory that moved them into a first-place tie with four to play.

***
‘Ridiculous Schedule’

 

The re-scheduled game with UTEP was next, after it had been postponed on December 23 when the Miners could not get into Omaha because of inclement weather. The timing was unfortunate — it came on Thursday of what was supposed to be a “bye” week leading up to a Saturday showdown at Tulsa, and an 11AM tip in Tulsa at that. More than that, it gave them three games in five days and six in 12 to end the regular season.

Barone made no bones about his disappointment. “I don’t think there’s any question that it’s a factor when you add another game. This was the only week in the conference season our team had off from Sunday through Saturday, which would have been a nice layoff.

“The issue is not winning and losing this game. It’s going to take a toll on our kids. Tulsa plays Wednesday night (Bradley). So we were going to have an advantage from a leg standpoint going in there. We don’t have that advantage now.”

He had the Jays sit back in a zone to conserve their legs for the Saturday game with Tulsa, a team that had destroyed Creighton in Omaha in December. “We just felt we had to play zone tonight with the number of games coming up the way they were,” the Jays coach commented afterward. “I didn’t think we could physically play the type of defense we want to play in man for three games in five days, so we played zone tonight. I don’t teach it very well. I don’t know much about it. But I thought our kids played with good hop tonight.”

After the 75-62 win, the Jays headed to Tulsa, where they played well for 30 minutes…and then hit the wall. Up nine with 10:32 to play, “We just stopped moving,” Barone said afterward. “We got real heavy legged and didn’t get anything done. I don’t know why. They didn’t do anything unique. We just hit the wall.”

“From the travel standpoint and the early – morning game (11 a.m. start), there’s no doubt about it. We knew it was going to happen. We thought we could get through it, and we didn’t. This is a ridiculous schedule. Playing two non-conference games sandwiched with a Saturday morning game is absolutely asinine. It’s totally ridiculous. What we need to be able to do is play with enthusiasm all the time, but sometimes you just physically can’t go.”

The 73-63 loss ended the Jays eight game winning streak. There was little time to sulk, with a trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame coming up in less than 48 hours as the “ridiculous schedule” continued.

As he had many times before, Chad Gallagher lifted the team when they needed a big game from someone. Making 15 of 18 shots, he had 32 points as the Jays handed Notre Dame their third-worst loss in the history of the Joyce Center, 90-67. “32? I thought Chad had about 50,” Latrell Wrightsell jokingly said on the postgame radio show. “He was going to work tonight. He was unconscious.”

***

Creighton (Nearly) Blows Big Lead, Barone Blows Gasket

 

With three games to play, SMS had a one-game lead in the standings by virtue of Creighton losing to Tulsa the previous weekend. Winning the championship was out the Jays’ hands — all they could so was win their remaining three games, and hope SMS tripped up somewhere.

The first of those games came versus old nemesis Drake, and Creighton threatened to blow them out of the gym, racing to a 21-point first half lead. As part of that early flurry, Bob Harstad passed the 2,000 point mark, becoming the first player in CU history to do so and just the fourth in MVC history to amass 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. The others? Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Xavier McDaniel. As they had when he passed Bob Portman to become the leading scorer in school history, play was stopped with 9:03 in the first half to recognize his accomplishment with a minute-long standing ovation.

Still holding a 21-point lead with 8:44 left in the game, Creighton didn’t score for over seven minutes, making their fans awfully nervous as the Bulldogs, 7-18 and 4-10 in the league, tried to play spoiler. And though Creighton won, 69-63, Barone was severely mad in the media room after the game.

“They didn’t look at Drake as a challenge today,” he told the World-Herald. “That’s an embarrassment to my basketball program. I’m real upset about it. We can’t win the tournament playing like this. There’s no question about it. All the pitfalls, all the things we prepared ourselves for happened tonight. No one listened to what our game plan was. We had very poor attention in practice.”

***

Honoring Five Outstanding Seniors

 

Before Senior Night, head coach Tony Barone took time to honor the five seniors who had led the team to the 1989 NCAA Tourney and who were on the verge of doing it again in 1991. The senior class would be part of the first Creighton teams to win 20 games three straight seasons, making them arguably the most successful class in program history.

“I find it hard to believe there would have been a group of seniors who have had more impact on a basketball program anywhere in the country,” Barone commented. “I think it’s a credit to each one of them. Nevada-Las Vegas over the long run will probably be one of the best teams ever to play college basketball. Their seniors certainly made a mark on their program. These kids have done something above and beyond that. It’s not just the winning and losing with these guys. It’s more of the total commitment they’ve made to Creighton University. When we came here, the program needed to be refurbished. It needed direction. The direction comes from the kids.”

On the Dynamic Duo, he said, “Chad and Bob are always lumped together, which is actually unfortunate for them because neither of them will ever get the recognition he deserves. The most important thing to remember is there isn’t a jealous bone in the body of Bob Harstad or Chad Gallagher. I find that incredible with two guys on the same team breaking the (career) scoring record. Both kids have a tremendous amount of respect for one another, and our basketball team has great respect for them.”

On Todd Eisner, he tried once again to emphasize the importance of the often-overlooked player. “Todd has been the spirit behind our basketball team since day one. He’s the best passer on the team and probably the most intelligent basketball person on the team, including the coaches. He’s had more effect on our basketball program than probably anyone else to this date, from a spirit standpoint.”

Talking about Darin Plautz, a starter but an often unsung member of the team, Barone said “He has a focus and a vision defensively that really has been tremendous for us. I think Darin will be selected to the Valley’s all-defensive team this year. He has been injured (back) all year. He has been subject to pain every game. He has fought through that. He does a lot of the little things that help you win basketball games.”

The fifth senior, Bill O’Dowd, had mostly been a role player off the bench, except for a couple of stretches where he subbed for an injured Chad Gallagher. “Bill’s academic achievements are unparalleled at our university,” Barone said. Indeed, O’Dowd was a Rhodes Scholar finalist, and was named one of the Top 20 college students — not student athletes, students period — by USA Today.

“Looking back at his basketball career, I don’t know of a young man who has been more consistent in his approach to what we want done on the court. Chad is a pretty good player right now. Bill O’Dowd has been part of that development because he made Chad work every day. While Billy doesn’t have Chad’s physical attributes, he has heart, and his heart has made us a better basketball team.”

***
“We Don’t Want to Share it With Anybody”

 

Creighton’s 76-73 win over Southern Illinois clinched at least a share of the MVC Regular Season crown thanks to Indiana State upsetting SMS earlier in the day. But they weren’t interested in sharing.

Heading to Wichita for the season finale, they needed a win to clinch the MVC title outright. “We don’t want to share it with anybody,” Harstad told reporters before the game. “This is the exact same situation we had two years ago. We knew we had a share of the conference when we went to Drake, but we wanted it by ourselves, and we had to beat Drake. I think that helps us, especially the seniors who have been around. It’s important to remember how we were down at halftime in that game, and how things looked kind of bleak, and how we came back and won.”

Up 63-62 with time ticking down, Wichita’s Robert George hit a shot over Duan Cole to put the Shockers up 64-63 with just 10 seconds to play. The Levitt Arena crowd was in a frenzy, and Tony Barone called timeout to set up the final play. Coach and player disagreed.

Barone instructed Cole to penetrate the lane, then either pass it outside to the wings, pass it inside to Harstad, or — as a last resort — shoot it himself. Cole, on the other hand, had just one option in mind. “I felt I owed my team something,” he said afterward. “I was down because he had just scored on me. I was frustrated, and I wanted to do something about it.”

“I had one focus – to take it to the basket.”

And so he drove coast to coast, pulled up in the lane and took a fallaway jumper with 3.8 seconds left. When the shot went in, it put Creighton up 65-64, and after a defensive stop, gave them the outright MVC title for the second time in three years. A subdued celebration followed, as the veteran team knew this was but one stop on the way to their ultimate goal.

***

A Rally for Two Championship Teams

 

As they had two years before, a rally was held on campus, attended by an estimated 500 revelers including Omaha Mayor PJ Morgan. This time it was for both the men’s and the women’s teams, however, as they were both celebrating conference championships. The men’s team had won 12 of their last 13 to overcome a slow start in winning the MVC, while the women’s team won 18 of their last 19 games to overcome a 3-4 start and claim the WAC title. It might have been the most remarkable six-week stretch of basketball by both programs, at the same time, in school history.

Women’s basketball coach Bruce Rasmussen took to the mic and, as he’s shown over the years as Athletic Director, had quite a way with words. “Our men’s slogan all year has been 20 – 20 – 20 Vision (setting three straight 20 – win seasons as a goal), and they accomplished that. I know they haven’t accomplished everything they want to accomplish, and we haven’t, either.

“Now, instead of 20 – 20 – 20 Vision, I think we ought to have a new slogan. Double-Double Vision – win the Missouri Valley Conference championship and Missouri Valley tournament and for the Lady Jays to win the WAC conference championship and the WAC tournament!”

The Mayor said he’d cleared his schedule for another rally following conference tournament championships by both teams, which was met by rousing applause. Finally, Creighton President Rev. Michael Morrison ended the festivities by noting, “We at Creighton are very proud of you. You’ve only got a few more games to win, that’s all.”

***

MVC Tournament Debuts in St. Louis

 

The 1991 MVC Tournament was held at a neutral site for the first time, moving to the 9,000 seat Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, a 56-year-old building in its final year. Shortly after the tournament, it was bulldozed to make room for the new Kiel Center, making the MVC Tourney the final basketball games played in the venerable facility.

As the teams arrived in town for the inaugural “Arch Madness”, postseason awards were handed out. The year before, Bob Harstad had won the Player of the Year award, with Chad Gallagher finishing second in the voting; this year, they switched positions with Gallagher winning the award and Harstad finishing second.

“I’m really pleased for Chad,” Tony Barone said at the press conference announcing the award. “I don’t think there’s any question that he deserves it. He’s improved his numbers in every area – scoring, rebounding, shooting percentage, shot blocks and defensive intensity. I think he’s played as well as you could play this year. It’s a shame we can’t give co-players of the year, because Bobby deserves it, too.”

The Dynamic Duo had been a unique pair of big men, where instead of one becoming the dominant player at the expense of the other, both excelled. “We picked each other up all the time,” Harstad noted. “If he wasn’t playing well, I would pick him up. If I wasn’t playing well, he would pick me up. Our friendship off the court has been a positive. You learn more about each other off the court. I think that carries over. Our friendship is something that will last a lifetime.”

Gallagher agreed. “It’s incredible how we’ve gotten along. The main thing in helping Bob and me be successful is we’re not worried about personal accomplishments. We’re only worried about whether or not our team wins. These awards don’t mean as much if we’re not winning.”

To that end, there was still work to be done. A quarterfinal matchup with Drake in Arch Madness awaited.

The day before that quarterfinal game, Gallagher woke up with the flu, something he seemed to battle a lot — a fact Barone used to comic effect with the media. “Chad is sick, but he’s always sick the day before games, so there’s no problem with that. He’ll be a little weak, but he’ll be fine.”

The MVC’s Player of the Year logged just 25 minutes, scoring 14 points as the flu limited his effectiveness. Harstad played just 23 minutes after spraining his toe in the first half, and scored seven points — the first and only time all season that he failed to score in double figures. So, given the struggles of the Dynamic Duo, it would stand to reason that  Creighton struggled to win, right?

Wrong. A different Dynamic Duo emerged to wear the superhero capes for one day: Duan Cole and Latrell Wrightsell. Cole scored 21 points, 17 of them in the first half when the outcome was still in doubt. And Wrightsell had a remarkable eight — yes, eight — steals to go along with eight points. Those steals keyed a 17-0 run to end the first half that effectively won the game for the Jays; they led 46-26 at the break and coasted to a 77-58 win. Their semifinal opponent would be Southern Illinois, and given their history, that meant one thing: a gut-wrenching hard-fought 40 minutes of basketball.

The Salukis’ defensive pressure fed off a Kiel Center crowd that was decidedly pro-SIU, and forced the Jays into a number of early turnovers that rattled the champions. Coupled with a five-minute scoring drought, the Salukis held a 24-14 lead midway through the half. To switch things up, Barone did something he rarely did — go to a zone. “We went to the zone a little more out of necessity than anything,” he said. “I don’t teach the zone very well. We don’t play it very well. But they’re a team we have real problems with one-on-one. I thought the zone hurt them a little bit.”

Slowly but surely, the tide started to turn, but not fast enough for Barone. With his team down at the half to SIU again, his nerves were nearly frayed. As he walked to the locker room, he muttered to several members of the media sitting at the scorers table, “This isn’t worth it. I should be at home eating a pizza and drinking a six-pack instead of putting up with this.”

After halftime, his team played a near-perfect half of basketball, which no doubt settled him down. They made 14 of 18 shots in the second half, and 9-11 from the charity stripe, to come back. Their first lead came with 7:58 to play, when Darin Plautz stole a pass and drove to the other end for a layup and a 55-54 lead. “Darin does the best job of anybody on our team of getting into the passing lane,” Barone noted later. “Fortunately, Shipley had three fouls at the time and couldn’t foul, so Darin had a clear shot at the basket. That was a big play. It might have been the turning point.”

They built a 61-55 lead, and then SIU came back to tie it at 61 on a pair of threes. At the under-four timeout, it was 61-all. And then it was time for the Dynamic Duo to take over. Harstad came out of the timeout and made a hanging jumper to give them the lead. Gallagher then had ferocious dunks on each of the next two possessions — the second one coming on a bullet pass from Latrell Wrightsell with 1:09 to play which all but broke SIU’s spirit. The 71-66 win moved the Jays into the championship game against the #2 seed, Southwest Missouri State, on Tuesday night.

SMS was a 1½ point favorite despite Creighton being the regular season champ, but that might have been based on the prevailing opinion that Creighton was in the NCAA Tournament regardless of the outcome, while SMS had to win to get in. Most ESPN pundits had the Bluejays safely in the field of 64, and USA Today’s mock bracket had them in, too.

The Jays weren’t taking any chances, however. They used a 9-2 run late in the opening half to take a 38-33 lead into the break, and then began the second half on a 14-5 run that all but iced the game. Holding SMS to 20.6% shooting and 19 points after halftime, they ran the Bears out of the gym in a 68-52 win.

On the morning of the game, Latrell Wrightsell learned his father had passed away following a battle with cancer. His teammates wore black bands on their uniforms in memory of him, and then Wrightsell, who insisted on playing, had one of the best games of his career. “I was going to play this game,” he said afterward. “We worked too hard to get this far, and I wanted to be a part of it.” His 16 points were a career high, and his five rebounds matched a season high. The performance, combined with 12 points in the semifinals and his eight steals in the quarterfinal win over Drake, landed Wrightsell on the all-tournament team — a group dominated by Jays as Harstad, Gallagher and Cole joined him.

Following the win, another subdued celebration took place, similar to the one in Wichita after winning the regular season title. Duan Cole explained that the team still had bigger goals, and that they weren’t happy simply making the tournament. “We think we can do something in the NCAA this year. We want to give a good showing, especially for our seniors. It’s not like we think we’re the 63rd or 64th team in the tournament. We feel we really belong in the meat of the pack. We’re going to try to show we’re a high-caliber team.”

***

Praise From … Billy Packer?

 

During the Big East Tournament final that immediately preceded the Selection Show, Creighton got a shout-out from the most unlikely of sources: that noted enemy of mid-majors everywhere, Billy Packer. The commentator was criticizing Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo for not reaching their potential as a high-low post combo; his partner, Jim Nantz, was dubious and asked him who did a better job.

“Creighton. With Bob Harstad and Chad Gallagher, they do the best job in the country of running a high-low post game. They could be a sleeper team in the tourney, Jim. Watch out for the Bluejays next week.”

***

An 11 Seed and a Trip to Salt Lake City

 

Creighton was given an 11 seed and sent to Salt Lake City and the West Regional, where they would play 6 seeded New Mexico State. The Aggies were 23-5 and 15-3 in the Big West, finishing second to undefeated UNLV, who had gone 30-0. Duan Cole, ever confident, was disappointed in the seed, telling the World-Herald “With the year we had, it seemed like we deserved a little better than 11th. But we’ve just got to accept it and show everybody what we can do.”

Had the Jays been seeded a bit higher, say, as a 9 seed and still been out West, they would have met Georgetown in the first round — and then had the thankless task of playing the Runnin’ Rebels in the second round. An 11 seed was just fine, thank you very much.

Being in the West region, the Creighton game was slotted for the dreaded “tweener”  4PM tip, meaning it fell outside the usual 11AM and 6PM double-header windows on CBS. Consequently, viewers in Omaha got a rare treat: five tourney games instead of four, including the Iowa-East Tennessee game at 2PM and the Nebraska-Xavier game at 9:15PM. It was quite a day of hoops for local fans.

New Mexico State had been rated in the top ten for a good portion of the season, and was 15th as the NCAA Tournament began. They were a team that preferred to play as fast as possible, and the numbers bared it out: they averaged 18 offensive rebounds a game, forced an average of 21 turnovers, and averaged an unbelievable 12 steals a game. Their gameplan was to press their opponent full court, get them to turn it over, and then score in transition. Obviously, that was quite a contrast to how Creighton preferred to play.

“They have great, great quickness – the type of quickness we can’t simulate in practice,” Tony Barone said at the Wednesday press conference. “We can’t play their style of play in practice. The biggest thing for us is to be fundamentally sound, make sure we take care of the ball and make sure we make solid passes. They get a ton of points off turnovers, and that’s something we’ve got to avoid.”

In an effort to prepare for the quickness of the Aggies, Barone employed an unorthodox scrimmage method: they played five-on-seven. “We used seven guys and we were still slower than they are. We had guys coming in from out of bounds. We had guys hiding at half court. I don’t know any other way for us to get an idea of what it will be like to play them. We’ve played teams quicker than us all year, but not as quick as New Mexico State.”

Bob Harstad summed up the Bluejay gameplan. “We’ve got to control the tempo of the game, or they’ll just outrun us.” Duan Cole added, “We don’t have as many athletes as they have, so it’s kind of tough for us. But we’ll make do with what we’ve got.”

They made do alright. One of the ways to combat quickness is with sharp passing, and another is to get every rebound in sight to prevent the transition game from taking hold. “Coach told us what we needed to do to win,” Gallagher said after the game. “For Bob and I, it was to rebound. For Duan and Latrell, it was to handle their press. Everybody on the team handled what our goals were really well.”

Harstad had 16 rebounds and Gallagher had 14, as the Jays controlled the glass. Latrell Wrightsell had eight assists, as the Jays had 20 assists on 23 made buckets. Duan Cole kept the handle on the ball despite the full-court press, and the Jays made just 13 turnovers, well under New Mexico State’s opponent average of 21. Defensively, they held the Aggies to 20.6% shooting in the first half and a season-low 19 points.  In short, the Jays executed their gameplan to a “T”, and they led nearly the entire game.

The 64-56 win moved the Jays into the Round of 32 and earned them a matchup with Big East champ Seton Hall. “I’m in a fog right now,” Barone said after the game. “We’re one of 32 teams left in the country. That’s a shock to me. The kids are proud. I’m proud of the kids. These kids have done things at Creighton University that have never been done before. You come back to reality when you look at Anthony Avent (the Pirates center). It jolts you back to reality. But we’re looking forward to that particular challenge.”

Upon further review, Barone’s opinion didn’t change much. “We don’t match up with Seton Hall at all,” he said. “There are no fair matchups. I think Chad will compete with Avent. Harstad will compete with whoever he has to compete with, and then we’re in trouble.”

With Nebraska being upset by Xavier, it left the Jays as the lone team from the state still playing, a fact the national media tried to play up. Harstad refused to take the bait. “I know when they beat us they said some things about us that weren’t very complimentary. I guess I could get my shot in now if I really wanted to. But Nebraska played really well all year long. They had a great season. I said before the season that Nebraska was going to surprise a lot of people this season, and they did.” Classy words from a classy guy.

In the first half of the game with Seton Hall, the Jays played well against the Pirates zone defense, and when Todd Eisner hit a three-pointer at the buzzer, they took a 32-31 lead into the half. “I was more than a little concerned,” Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo said afterward. “I didn’t think we would be able to get them out of their offense.” They switched to a man-to-man defense, and it completely shut the Jays down. A 29-9 run over the first 9:14 of the second half, containing separate 7-0, 9-0 and 12-0 runs, gave Seton Hall a lead Creighton could not overcome.

With 1:35 left in the game, Tony Barone took Bob Harstad and Chad Gallagher out of the game for the final time, together, and the Bluejay fans in attendance gave them one last, long, well-deserved standing ovation.

Two weeks later, Barone would interview for the Texas A&M at the Final Four in Indianapolis, and two days after that, he interviewed for the Colorado State job. On Monday, April 8, he accepted the job at A&M, and a few days later, Creighton would hire one of his assistants, Rick Johnson, to take over the program.

It would be six years before they had another winning season, and eight years before they would return to the NCAA Tournament.

Next Tuesday, the next chapter in WBR’s series “Great Teams” begins a three-part look back at the 1973-74 Creighton Bluejays of Eddie Sutton.

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