Creighton 71, Bradley 62
Those possibilities showed in the victory over Bradley, along with two traits this Creighton team had not shown on the court since early December: the fire of motivation and a reckless abandon for the basketball. In a Missouri Valley Conference season where most games will be close, those two team characteristics will affect the outcome of every contest. Do you want it more than the other guys? Will you do everything in your power to get to the rebound? To the loose ball? Last night the answer was a resounding “yes”.
It was a new-look Creighton team from the opening introductions. Gone were starters Jimmy Motz and Kellen Miliner, both players struggling in different aspects of the game during the past few weeks. Freshman Dane Watts earned his first start of the season. Altman also tapped Johnny Mathies, a starter at point guard most of last season, to begin the game. I wouldn’t say the Jays became too comfortable with the rotation this early in the season, but since the Guardians Classic wins and the victory over Nebraska, complacency could be seen in too many stretches of action. Joining Watts and Mathies in the starting lineup were Tyler McKinney, Nate Funk, and Anthony Tolliver, and we were on our way.
The Qwest Center was busy filling up as the Jays and Braves jumped the opening tip, and from the beginning of the game until halftime, the Jays played with more intensity than they had in any stretch of the previous four games. Leading the way was Anthony Tolliver, who absolutely would not be denied of some crucial first-half rebounds. He also added his loudest four points of the season, on two dunks that excitedly incited the 14,235 in attendance. Tolliver finished the game with just those four points, but it was his nine rebounds in 20 minutes that showed his renewed vigor and determination, along with his adjustment to the speed of the college game.
At the end of the first half, which was marred by questionable officiating and prolonged periods of turnovers by both squads, most Jays fans had to be impressed. Creighton won the first half battle of the boards, committed fewer turnovers than Bradley, and actually shot above 40% for the first opening 20 minutes in a while. But the score was tied 30-30. The second-guessing and nervous questions swelled in my head: Can we hold the same intensity for the rest of the game? Does this team know how to close out a close game? Can we really out rebound these guys the entire game?
But Creighton did it. They kept diving after loose balls. They kept causing tie-ups and forcing turnovers. Most importantly, they hit some big shots. Led by Funk’s career-high 22 points, the Jays shot nearly 50% in the second half and finished at 45% for the game. New starters Watts (11 points, 3 rebounds) and Mathies (13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 monster blocked shot) gave the Jays a lift offensively, and both made big shots down the stretch. While they didn’t put the Braves away, Creighton should be proud of the consistently high level of effort on display against Bradley.
Creighton avoided starting conference play 0-2 and will now go on the road for a redemption game at Drake next week. The Jays should be prepared for a tough game, as most of the contests in the conference will be decided by the intangibles – diving, sprawling, sprinting, and willing. Hopefully the motivation and the reckless abandon stick around longer than the usual New Year’s resolutions, because those are the traits the will define this season for the Jays.
- Jeffony Tolliday scored nine points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 39 minutes of play. Tolliday also added two assists and two blocked shots while only committing two turnovers. Both Tolliver and Jeff Day snagged some big boards, with Tolliver turning in his best performance since the Ohio State game in Kansas City. Anthony did a great job of tipping balls and keeping them alive even if he couldn’t get a solid grasp on a rebound. When you consider they had the seven-foot freshman Patrick O’Bryant and conference meal ticket Marcellus Sommerville to contend with in the paint, Tolliday’s numbers speak volumes about the two-headed center’s effort.
- I wasn’t able to listen to the post game radio show, but if Mathies wasn’t the Payflex player of the game he should have been. I know Funk dropped a career-high on the Braves and continued his great rebounding (7 boards), but Mathies took his usual spark-off-the-bench mentality and applied it from the opening tip. His stats were impressive (again, 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 blocked shot) but it was his intensity and his ability to push the ball toward the basket that made his minutes so valuable. I know that McKinney is the floor general, but defenders do not honor his scoring ability. Mathies makes people guard him, and even if they do he can blow right past them and make something happen on his way to the rim.
- Patrick O’Bryant will be a force in the Valley for next couple of years, but just because he blocks a lot of shots doesn’t mean he plays great defense. While Tolliver and Day did not do an enormous amount of damage offensively in the paint, guys like Watts, Funk, and even Mathies found themselves open repeatedly in the lane. The reason O’Bryant blocks a lot of shots, other than his natural size and wingspan, is the fact that he allows guys into the paint in the first place. Once he learns how to use his arms to keep opponents from sneaking past him in the low blocks, he will be arguably the best defensive threat in the conference. But he looked lost many times, and even when he blocked Watts’ dunk attempt in the second half, Dane came right down a couple trips later and laid the ball up in the paint.
- I feel for Miliner. He just can’t seem to find his stroke, and his prolonged slump has to worry Altman. The Jays need all the viable perimeter scoring threats that they can find, and that includes Miliner. As the season rolls on, Miliner will find his stroke again. Once that happens, some of the pressure on Funk will subside, and the Jays will be able to score from the outside like they did in the early weeks of the season.
- Kudos to the crowd for the boost in energy at the Q. More than 14,000 cheered the Jays to victory, with a paid attendance of more than 15,000. Say what you want about the atmosphere at Creighton games, but there is no denying that the Q is the crown jewel of both Creighton athletics and the revitalized Omaha downtown. Considering the game was on television locally, the large turnout is even more impressive.