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Ott’s Thoughts: Creighton Sweeps Southern Illinois, Evansville on the Road

I’ve only walked out of one movie in my life. Remember Sgt. Bilko, “starring” Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, and Phil Hartman? That’s OK; I’m pretty sure Martin and Aykroyd don’t remember it, either. If the last 63 minutes are as bad as the first 30, I’m glad I left the old Westroads theater early, regardless of no doubt being bummed as a 16-year-old that I had just wasted a good $5 o $6.

As I turned to Panon and my wife shortly after the first half concluded Friday night from Carbondale, I considered calling it a night and leaving the movie theater early. We had scored a few last minute spots at Creighton’s viewing party at Marcus Midtown Cinema, where the Bluejays, the Southern Illinois Salukis, and Travis Justice’s huge noggin were sharing the silver screen.

I’m not sure why I stayed (the $1 surely helped, as did the plush leather seating in the theater and the rowdy crowd in the auditorium seating), but I’m glad I did. For the third straight season, the Bluejays beat the Salukis in SIU Arena. And for the second consecutive year, they did so in overtime. But after 20 minutes of play, I wasn’t really hoping for a win; I just wanted the Jays to get out of harms way and not get blown out. CU notched a season-low 18 points in the first half, and even though the Jays held SIU to just 25 points things just didn’t seem to be headed the right direction for Greg McDermott’s team.

The Bluejays shot just 30% in the first half against Southern Illinois, they surrendered the boards to the tune of a 23-15 difference in favor of SIU, and they committed 7 turnovers to just 2 assists. Add cold shooting from outside (1 of 7 from 3-point range), poor focus at the free throw line (5-11 from the stripe), and underwhelming point guard play by Antoine Young (1-6 from the field, zero assists and 2 turnovers in 19 minutes), and the game had the makings of a potential rotten tomato.

But then the Bluejays battled back, fueled by a return to their fundamentals and the emergence of newcomer Gregory Echenique and senior Kaleb Korver. After making just one basket in the first 20 minutes, Korver was perfect from the field in the second half. His 3-pointer with 10:20 to play gave the Jays a 1-point lead. But another SIU run would leave Creighton down 50-43 with 5 minutes to play in regulation. A minute later, with Southern Illinois leading by 4, another Korver bomb cut the Creighton deficit to 1 point. Meanwhile, Echenique worked through constant double-teams and embarrassing flopping by Saluki defenders to score 9 points and grab 4 rebounds in the second half. He cut his turnovers from 3 in the first half to zero in the second. He calmly hit 3 clutch free throws. And on one of the game’s biggest plays, he displayed his unselfish and clear vision for his teammates.

After dominating the first two minutes of the overtime period with an opening possession layup and then a blocked shot on SIU’s first offensive trip, Echenique started another Creighton possession by corralling a missed shot by Mamadou Seck. After 30 seconds or so had clicked off the clock, Echenique found himself with the ball on the low block and the Jays up 2 with almost no time on the shot clock. Instead of forcing up a shot, Echenique found Korver on the right wing, and the hot-shooting guard drilled a 3-pointer as the clock buzzer sounded. The Salukis would cut the lead to 3 a minute later, but Echenique would step to the line and calmly knock down a few more free throws. The Bluejays wouldn’t allow SIU to get closer than 3 the rest of the way, and McDermott and his staff drew the curtain on a comeback performance that stunned fans of both the home and away teams.

There was little time for players, coaches, and fans to bask in a road win in Carbondale, something that for the current set of letter winners has been a positive trip the past few seasons. It wasn’t always that way, what with Bruce Weber, Matt Painter, and Chris Lowery having Dana Altman’s number for the better part of the last decade, especially in SIU Arena. The Jays hit the road to another place CU fans see in their nightmares, if not only for a few of the program’s more unexpected poor efforts in the last decade or so — Roberts Stadium in Evansville, Indiana.

Sure, the Bluejays won four of their previous five games in Evansville before Sunday’s late afternoon tip-off. And yes, at 1-3 in the Valley play, it isn’t hard to imagine the Aces playing another Thursday night game in Saint Louis. But with young gun Colt Ryan and some experienced role players around him, Evansville’s motion offense proved a tough task for the improving yet exhausted Creighton defense to tackle.

The Aces took an 8-5 lead about 4 minutes into the game, but then the Bluejays started knocking down jump shots, leaving no doubts about their conditioning less than 48 hours removed from an overtime win on the road. A 17-4 run by Creighton left the score 22-12 in favor the Jays with just under 12 minutes to play in the first half. Korver brought his shooting touch from Carbondale to Evansville, as he hit 3 more 3-pointers in the first half and led the Jays in scoring in the first 20 minutes (along with Kenny Lawson, who poured in 9 first-half points, too).

But the Aces wouldn’t fold, and over the last 10 minutes of the first half the home team worked the Jays steadily for easy baskets and breakdowns by the Bluejays’ ball-handlers. Antoine Young, Doug McDermott, Korver, and Lawson each had one turnover apiece down the stretch in the first half, and a 3-pointer by Denver Holmes staked Evansville to a 2-point halftime lead.

Surely the Bluejays were spent. Valley play started on December 29, and from that point until Sunday evening Creighton had played four and a half games in a dozen days. The Jays aren’t deep to start with. Figure that Evansville’s motion offense — heck, just trying to account for and limit Colt Ryan’s offensive production — no doubt wore down Creighton a bit, and it was easy to visualize a scenario in which the Jays kept close with the home team but couldn’t quite make it over the hump in the last 5 minutes.

The two teams exchanged good possessions and solid defensive play in the first 10 minutes of the second half. But lead changes and ties gave way to a 50-50 score with 11 minutes and change. And that’s when Korver, continuing the best two-game stretch of his Creighton career, hit a 3-pointer to give the Bluejays a lead they would never relinquish. Two minutes later, another Korver 3-pointer (and two made free throws by McDermott that came from an off-ball foul during the made 3) pushed the CU lead to 6. The made basket would wrap up his scoring effort for the game and the weekend: 29 points in two games, with all but one of his baskets coming from behind the arc.

The Bluejays would make their free throws down the stretch (13-16 in the second half), Evansville couldn’t get points during a couple of key possessions, and the team boarded the chartered plane headed to Omaha undefeated in Valley road play and 4-1 overall in conference action.

It was a remarkable weekend for the starters and key contributors to this season’s Creighton team. With Echenique now joining Lawson in the starting lineup, and with Darryl Ashford responding to being the team’s sixth man by scoring 8 points, grabbing 3 rebounds, and dishing 2 assists with zero turnovers against SIU and putting up 7 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and zero turnovers in 26 minutes against UE, the Bluejays have seemingly pared down playing time and are riding a select few to advance the team’s goals for this season. Add Ashford’s numbers to the following posted by the team’s starters on the road over the weekend, and the balance is clear:

  • Echenique: 32 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks
  • Korver: 29 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists
  • McDermott: 27 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists
  • Lawson: 17 points, 6 rebounds
  • Young: 18 points, 3 rebounds, 10 assists, 6 turnovers

It has been an eventful winter break for Greg McDermott’s first Creighton team. They played three games in a week to get Echenique ready for Valley play. They went 4-1 in 12 days of conference action. And they welcome Wichita State to a whiteout atmosphere (both in and outside the Qwest Center) Wednesday, the first day of classes for the spring semester. Both teams are 4-1, with each losing home games to Missouri State. Every game is big, but after the weekend Creighton just posted, a win at home over the Shockers would qualify as a blockbuster.

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