Doug’s sigh said it all. The Jays were mired in a slump, and Illinois State had just come into the CenturyLink Center and handed Creighton another unexpected defeat. Suddenly the team that couldn’t miss couldn’t make ‘em. The team that many had pegged as perhaps the best in program history looked ordinary. The Jays looked lost and out of synch.
Junior all-American Doug McDermott left the podium after doing his best to answer the tough questions about his team’s lack of execution, he exhaled deep and hard. He looked like his dog got hit by a car, somebody stole his ice cream, and his girlfriend dumped him all on the same day. He looked like he needed a hug.
A comment that Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen made a couple of weeks earlier came to mind. “Being ranked and nationally recognized is great,” Rasmussen said, “But it’s not as fun as it looks from the outside.”
The school record 17 consecutive weeks Creighton spent in the Associated Press top 25 put a target on their back each time the Jays stepped on the court. Their coach set a goal of Sweet 16 or bust. The fans expectations have never been higher. That’s a lot of pressure for a bunch of kids, and it looked like the pressure had taken its’ toll.
Meanwhile senior guard and co-captain Grant Gibbs kept his cool. “It’s not a time to point fingers and blame anybody,” said Gibbs. “We’ve just got to put our heads down and go back to work and stay hungry. We don’t have to worry about rankings or anything like that anymore, but there’s still a lot to play for and we’ve got to value that.”
Of course there’s a heck of a lot to still play for. Once the dust had settled last weekend, Creighton trailed Wichita State by one game in the race for the Valley regular season championship. With only a pair of conference games remaining, the Jays and Shockers are set for an epic showdown in the final game of the regular season at the CenturyLink Center March 2nd. Then it’s on to St. Louis, where the Jays will try to defend their Arch Madness title.
If the Jays are able to catch fire again like they did in starting the season 17-1, they’ll likely point to last Saturday’s comeback at Evansville as the defining moment. After the home loss versus Illinois State, Creighton lost its’ next game at Northern Iowa to extend its losing streak to three games. A loss at Evansville would have given Creighton its’ longest losing skid in 13 years.
With just over seven minutes to go in the first half, Evansville led 31-16 after a 15-0 run. McDermott was scoreless and Gregory Echenique was called for a flagrant foul. Things looked bleak indeed, but apparently the basketball gods felt that Creighton had been kicked around enough. Evansville missed both free throws, the Jays got a stop, and the next time down the floor McDermott got on the board.
By the time it was over McDermott would finish with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and the Jays clawed back to gut out a 71-68 victory to run their record to 21-6 overall and 10-5 in the Valley. After the comeback was over, head coach Greg McDermott called it a must-win game for his squad.
“That’s what this one was for us,” said Greg McDermott. “You try not to approach it that way with the team because we were feeling enough heat as it was, but we needed this one pretty badly.”
Before their showdown with the Shockers next weekend, the Jays have to fly halfway across the country to take on St. Mary’s for the Bracketbuster game in Moraga, California. This is the last year of the Bracketbuster series as ESPN announced earlier this season that the event had run its course. Bracketbusters started in 2003 as a way to showcase the best mid-major teams against each other late in the season. The idea was to give added exposure to lesser known teams and afford them an opportunity to enhance their post season resumes.
Over the years Bracketbuster has grown to over 100 teams, but the field has gotten watered down considerably. The Mountain West and the Atlantic 10 conferences have opted out, while teams like Gonzaga and Butler also have declined to participate. At least the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks will get a taste of the event before it goes away. The Mavs host old North Central Conference rival North Dakota at the Ralston Arena on Feb. 23.
The Creighton-St. Mary’s matchup, also slated for Feb. 23, is this year’s marquee game, and will be broadcast by ESPN starting at 5:00 p.m. central time. The Gaels are led by one of the nation’s premier point guards, Matthew Dellavedova, who also competes for the Australian national team. After last weekends’ action, the Gaels are in second place in the West Coast Conference behind Gonzaga with a 22-5 overall record.
After turning the tables on the Purple Aces last weekend, the Jays hope they can keep the momentum going down the stretch run.
“We have to continue to play hard and play good defense, but we’ve got to play smart as well. Sometimes lately we’ve let the intensity of the game and the environment cause us to make some really bone-head plays that have eventually cost us the game,” said senior guard Grant Gibbs. “We’ve got to be able to play with that intensity and still keep our focus.”
A renewed focus on the little things would go a long ways in helping the Jays with the big things they set out to accomplish when the season began. Making shots wouldn’t hurt either. Creighton continues to lead the nation in field goal percentage, but during its’ recent struggles the outside shot has often been missing in action. When their outside shooters are connecting, the Jays can play with anyone, but when they go cold, the Jays suddenly look average.
“We’ve got to keep shooting those shots. Lately, we’ve had some rough nights…” said Doug McDermott. “We’ve just got to keep working, and we know that they’re going to fall. It’s been a tough time for us, but I think we’ll bounce back and be ready for a really challenging finish.”
McDermott Joins Elite Club
His 21 points at Evansville pushed all-American forward Doug McDermott over the 2,000 point mark for his career. Only two other players in the history of the Missouri Valley Conference have ever accomplished that feat in just three seasons- Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati (1957-60) and Larry Bird (1976-79). Both of those men have busts in the NBA Hall of Fame.
McDermott’s 2001 points put him third on Creighton’s all-time scoring chart behind only Rodney Buford (2,116) and Bob Harstad (2,110). If McDermott continues with his current scoring average (23.5 ppg), he will become the Jays’ all-time leading scorer by season’s end.