The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more electric. And the Jays couldn’t have come up with a more clutch effort in clinching the regular season Missouri Valley Conference championship before an ecstatic sellout crowd last Saturday at the CenturyLink Center.
“Wow, that was an incredible performance by our team,” said Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. The way they have conducted themselves off the floor and in the locker room throughout the season in a championship fashion…you like to think good things will happen to guys who do the right things. So I’m proud that they are champions on the floor as well.”
He was also one proud papa.
Junior All-American Doug McDermott’s performance in Creighton’s 91-79 win over Wichita State was the epitome of clutch. McDermott torched the best defensive team in the league for 41 points and six boards. He put the Jays on his back, hitting 15-18 shots from all over the floor and all six of his three throws. Given what was on the line, it may have been the greatest game played by a Bluejay in the 95 year history of the program.
“From the jump he was efficient, and we just kept trying to get him the ball,” said senior guard Grant Gibbs. “He’s had a lot of performances where he’s had 25 or 30, and it’s been a quiet 25 or 30. That was an extremely loud 41. Every one of his buckets was huge. He was in a great rhythm, and that’s the best performance I’ve seen or been a part of.”
As a team, the Jays shot over 70 percent in clinching their first outright regular season Valley title since 2001, although they shared the crown with Northern Iowa in 2009. The scenario seemed unlikely a week ago, at least to those on the outside. The preseason conference favorites had dropped 5 of their past 10 games as they struggled to find the shooting touch that led to their 17-1 start.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as a couple of baskets going in and a couple of plays going your way. Basketball has the ability to humble you like that,” said Gibbs. “Sometimes when you think you’re on top of the world, it brings you back down. But this team still had that confidence in each other. We knew we were going to break through and start playing better.”
The breakthrough actually came in the second half of the previous game at Bradley. The Braves led much of the first half before everything started to click again for the Jays. They ran out to a 27 point lead en route to a 80-62 win. That same night Evansville upset Wichita State, pulling the Shockers even with the Jays in the standings and setting the scene for last Saturday’s epic showdown.
18,613 showed up, and by the time senior Josh Jones led the team onto the court for the pregame layup drill, they were at a fever pitch. Jones’ career came to an abrupt halt back in December when he was forced to give up the game because of a heart condition. He donned the uniform one final time as an honorary starter on senior day. The fans also bid farewell to senior center Gregory Echenique, Gibbs, and walk-ons Taylor Stormberg and Joe Kelling.
It also may have been the final home game for McDermott should he elect to leave for the bright lights and big money of the NBA, but Saturday he just wanted to savor the moment.
“I can’t really comment on that right now,” said Doug McDermott when asked about his future plans. “I’m just excited we’re champions, that’s all my mind is focused on, but we can’t dwell on this too much because we’ve got St. Louis coming up and hopefully some more basketball to play after that.”
Because of their late season slump, Creighton’s spot in the Big Dance is anything but a sure thing. Although the Jays own a number of resume building wins from early in the season, a strong showing at the Missouri Valley Tournament would certainly help their cause. Of course, there is a way to avoid the drama of waiting for a bid on selection Sunday.
“There’s only one guaranteed way of getting into the NCAA Tournament,” said coach McDermott. “And that’s to win in St. Louis.”
Fortunately for the Jays, winning games in St. Louis has become something of a habit. No team has owned Arch Madness like Creighton, as the Jays have cut down the nets 11 times over the years, including last season. No other league team has won more than five. Wichita State hasn’t won the tournament since 1987.
That isn’t to say Creighton isn’t vulnerable- far from it. Five losses during the conference season to five different teams are proof positive that anything can happen if the Jays aren’t on their game. It’s only the third time in the 105 year history of the conference that a team has won the regular season title with as many as five losses.
Northern Iowa, Evansville, Indiana State, and Illinois State all have the talent, experience and moxie to challenge the Jays and Shockers for the tournament title. Evansville is the only team out of the bunch not to have plucked a feather from the Jays this season, although the Purple Aces gave them all they could handle.
Even the lowest seeded squad, Southern Illinois, is looking forward to the opportunity. The Salukis have been on a tear toward season’s end and would love nothing more than to spoil someone else’s party.
“We’ve got Jeff Early, and Jeff has this Puerto Rican accent. Every time he talks my wife thinks he’s Fabio, like some Latin lover or something,” said Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson. “And he keeps talking about Arch Madness. ‘Anything can happen coach, anything can happen.’ And he’s right.”
Adding to the drama is the strong possibility that this will be Creighton’s final trip to St. Louis for the postseason. Last week, multiple sources reported that Creighton is likely to be invited to join the “Catholic 7” in forming a new league. The group of schools has broken away from the Big East. However, it now appears that they will retain that name-for a hefty sum-and continue playing their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I don’t have any comment on that because I don’t have any idea what’s going on,” said coach McDermott. “You guys (the media) have a better idea about what’s going on with that deal than I do. I’m not on the ‘need to know’ list with that so we’ll deal with that if it ever happens.”
For now, Bluejay fans are flocking to St. Louis in record numbers. Creighton fans have already snatched up more than 5,000 tickets, with many more expected to make the trip south. All games will be played at the Scottrade Center starting with Thursday’s games involving the lowest four seeds.
Creighton and McDermott take the court Friday at noon versus the winner of Thursday’s Bradley-Drake game with a chance to make history. With 2,106 points now in his career, McDermott needs just 11 points to surpass Rodney Buford as Creighton’s all-time leading scorer.
All Arch Madness games will be televised by MVC TV, found locally on FoxSports Midwest, except the championship contest. CBS will once again broadcast the title game nationally with tipoff set for 1:00 p.m. Sunday, March 10th.