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Polyfro Postgame: Opening Night Jitters

In our gameday predictions, I said that the Jays would win by 14 and Kenny Lawson would lead the way with 17 points. By the time I got to a downtown establishment on Friday night for pregame beers, nachos and other assorted awesomeness, I’d changed my mind and so when the Bluejay Banter guys handed me a notecard to fill out with my prediction, I wrote down “Antoine Young” and “17”. I’m still not sure what made me change my mind, but oh, was it ever right.

Coming in, many fans that I’d spoken with had the feeling that the game would be closer than it oughtta be for the first half, but that the Jays would ultimately pull away. There were just too many factors all pointing towards that to ignore: it was the first “real” game under a new staff, with all of the nervousness that goes along with that; the players were still trying to perfect the new schemes of the staff; many of the same bad habits that plagued the team a year ago still exist; and Alabama State had just enough shooters to keep the game close if they got hot.

I don’t think any of us thought the Hornets would have the lead at several points in the half, though. That’s exactly what happened, as the first half was extremely uneven and rough, and there were three ties and seven lead changes. The scoreboard read 33-30 Creighton at the half, but if you glanced at the statsheet, you would have thrown up a bit in your mouth (and not been able to blame the Schlitz aftertaste from the cheap beer stand for it, either). Check out these numbers:

  • Points in the paint, Alabama State led 14-6
  • Second Chance points, Alabama State led 9-2
  • Bench points, Alabama State led 16-11
  • Rebounds, Alabama State led 20-17
  • Shooting percentage, Alabama State led 41.9% to 39.1%
  • Assists, Alabama State had 7 on 13 made baskets, Creighton had 5 on 14 made baskets

The Jays might have led on the scoreboard, but for all intents and purposes, they were outplayed in the first half by a team that, on paper, is vastly inferior. Now, in fairness it must be noted that preseason MVC Player of the Year Kenny Lawson was limited to just seven minutes after picking up two early fouls, and sharpshooter Ethan Wragge didn’t play at all because of a foot injury. Still, when Lawson went to the bench at the 11:32 mark with his second foul, the Jays promptly rattled off a 14-2 run that at the time, seemed to indicate the Jays were done messing around. The resulting 31-21 lead at the under-four timeout was erased with a 9-0 Hornet run in the minutes leading up to the break, stymied only two late free throws from Antoine Young to make it 33-30.

So yes, Lawson played only seven minutes and Wragge didn’t play at all. But you’d like to think the Jays are more than three points better than Alabama State, even without contributions from those two players. It was what it was, and the only thing to do was to regroup and hope the second half would be better.

If there was one bright spot in the first half, it was Young making both of the three pointers he attempted, and going 5-6 from the charity stripe — two areas he struggled at last year — in 17 minutes of play.

***

The second half, at least initially, was more of the same. Three lead changes in the first three minutes, with Alabama State ultimately holding a 40-39 edge at the 16:49 mark, had many in the announced crowd of 15,141 feeling uneasy.

It was at that moment when Antoine Young decided he’d seen enough of the plucky Hornets and their thoughts of an opening night upset. The next nine possessions, over three minutes, were The Antoine Young Show, starring Antoine Young.

  • 16:31: Young hits a jumper to put the Jays up 41-40
  • 16:14: Young rebounds a missed shot by Alabama State, races to the other end, and makes a layup. 43-40 Jays
  • 15:39: Young rebounds another missed shot by Alabama State, runs the fastbreak and kicks it out to a wide-open Doug McDermott for a three-pointer. The assist puts the Jays up 46-40
  • 15:03: Young draws a charge, then comes out for a breather to a standing ovation from the crowd

It was a virtuoso performance, one that lifted the team to a lead to they would not relinquish and one which showed that Young may be ready to make the leap to team leader — something they lacked a year ago, the sort of player who can put the team on his back in a key moment and deliver a win. It was certainly a key moment; Alabama State had taken the lead, and didn’t seem to be going away until Young delivered one clutch play after another, all in such a short period of time that the Hornets never knew what hit them. For the game, he wound up with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and made 9-10 free throws in 34 minutes.

There were other key performances on opening night, too. Jahenns Manigat, the freshman guard from Canada, made 3-5 from long range for 12 points in 22 minutes, but it was his energy off the bench — on defense, going after loose balls, keeping his teammates up when the game turned tense in spots — that while can’t be quantified with stats, is impressive for a freshman and gives the Jays another dimension they lacked last year.

And of course, Doug McDermott, who after 18 points in the exhibition last week had 16 points and 7 rebounds in the opener. He’s a throwback to an earlier era of Creighton hoops (or to Greg McDermott’s teams at UNI, for that matter) in that he doesn’t overwhelm you with physical skills, and if you’re an opponent, you don’t see any one area of his game that makes it obvious why he’s as good as he is. Yet he’s almost always in the right place for rebounds, for tip-ins, to catch passes for easy baskets, and on defense. He just has that intangible about him that can’t be coached. He’s the type of player you play against, aren’t necessarily impressed with, then you look up at the end and he’s got 15 points and 8 rebounds and you say to yourself “How the heck did that happen?”. And he does it every single night. Creighton’s had a lot of those type of players over the years. They’ve won a helluva lot of games with those type of players. They’d gotten away from that in recent years, but with Doug McDermott, they’ve got another one of them, and an awfully good one, I’d say.

On the whole, the game showed areas of concern and areas of promise. In other words, it was like every opening night game for pretty much every team in America. Two games in the next five days give them a chance to correct some of those areas of concern before their first game outside of Omaha, and to see if Young, McDermott and Manigat can continue to be counted on as key performers every night.

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