Creighton 69, Evansville 64; Creighton 74, Indiana State 55
Put the Aces in a (deep) hole
Creighton exacted payback over Evansville, earning a season series split with the Purple Aces. The game was far from perfect, as the Jays struggled to find the form displayed in wins against Chattanooga and Wichita State earlier in the month. The Jays shot 45% from the field and 62% from beyond the three-point arc in the first half, compared with 33% from the field and 17% from long range in the second half. And even without a healthy Nate Funk – scoring eight points as he struggled with the flu – the Jays got key offense from Johnny Mathies (a career-high 22 points) and rebounding from Anthony Tolliver (13 boards, including 3 on the offensive end).
Even though the game was ugly, and the Jays let a double-digit lead slip in the second half, the Jays won their third straight game and more importantly defeated a team that they should take care of at home. Creighton has struggled to finish off opponents at home so many times this season, and the last thing Altman and his team needed wearing on their confidence was a complete implosion against an overmatched Purple Aces squad.
Cut the Trees down
Stop number two on the Retribution Tour 2005 was a Senior Day date with the Indiana State Sycamores. Creighton posted their 19th victory of the season because of a combination of solid defense, decent rebounding, and 51 combined points from backcourt members Funk, Mathies, and seniors Tyler McKinney and Kellen Miliner. Tolliver and his partner on the low blocks, Jeff Day, combined for 12 points and nine rebounds in 36 minutes of play, with three monster blocked shots, and Jimmy Motz stepped off the bench with three big treys.
So on a day that Jays fans celebrated the careers of McKinney and Miliner, it was the immediate future I kept pining for. Juniors Funk and Mathies had another incredible day, combining for 34 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals. These two warriors set the tone for this team for the rest of this season, but will arguably be the best backcourt in the Valley next season. Mathies’ play in the past month has been reminiscent of former Bluejay guard Ben Walker’s push to postseason action in 2000. We all know what Funk has done over the entire season, and I’ve been calling for his rightful claim to the Player of the Year award since the Guardian’s Classic.
Two down, one to go
So the Retribution Tour 2005 climaxes Monday with the Jays’ visit to Normal, Illinois, to take on Illinois State. The final regular season game of the year proves to be exciting, gut-wrenching, and nerve-racking all at once, because the Jays are fighting for third place in the Valley. Can the emotion of revenge counteract what will definitely be a charged atmosphere for Redbird Senior Night? If it can, the Jays will be poised for another upper-half finish in conference play and playing their best basketball since late November.
The homestretch is almost done, as less than a week from now I’ll be down in St. Louis, taking in all of the uniqueness of Arch Madness. So before the final regular season Jays game, let’s revisit last weekend’s five key factors for a solid Bluejay finish:
1. Funk continuing his MVP-type play
Check. Funk suffered in silence against Evansville, launching himself around the court and grabbing boards regardless of his bought with the flu and his subsequent sub par night offensively. He was back to his old (and wonderful) self against the Sycamores, pouring in 18 points in just 27 minutes of play. That last number is what is important, because Saturday’s game marked the third straight game that Funk has been able to log under 30 minutes of game action. He’ll obviously need to be on the floor the majority of next weekend if the Jays are to make a run to next Monday’s championship game, so it was vital that Funk was able to rest his legs a bit over the past week.
2. Mathies finishing the season strong
Check. Last week was a great one for Mathies. In the two Bluejay wins, he scored 38 points, shot 12-21 from the field (57%), 5-7 from long range (71%), 9-12 from the charity stripe (75%), and logged five assists and seven steals. But his confidence and toughness is what allows him to do so many things. He doesn’t shy away from taking shots, something that cannot be said for McKinney, and he is a better defender and finisher in the paint than is Miliner. Mathies continues to creep up the Valley scoring list, now averaging 14 points per conference game (7th-best in the MVC), and he ranks fourth in Valley games with 29 steals (1.7 per game). He has grown leaps and bounds since this time last season, and that has to make Jays fans excited as postseason basketball begins.
3. Bluejays making the extra pass
McKinney leads the Valley in assists, but it isn’t just the senior point guard making plays. In the last three games, Creighton has made 39 three-pointers and has recorded 49 assists. The Jays are a perimeter-heavy team, so they need to continue finding open players for jump shots while not being afraid to work the ball down low and wait for double-teams to pass out of. Sounds easy enough, but with young post players, it is easier said than done.
4. Jeff Day taking over the paint
Last week, it was Tolliver, not Day, doing the little things in the post for the Jays. Before last week, Tolliver hadn’t grabbed five or more rebounds in a game since Creighton’s win over Bradley in Omaha at the end of December. But Tolliver hit the glass hard against Evansville, grabbing a career-high 13 caroms, and followed that up with 6 boards against Indiana State. However, Tolliver still lacks presence on offense, and that has to come from Day. After having solid games against Wichita State and Chattanooga, Day was unable to get on track against the Purple Aces – recording just two points on 0-4 shooting from the field. He did get on track somewhat against Indiana State, scoring eight points and going perfect from the free throw line (4-4). Jeffony Tolliday is going to need assert himself as a two-headed monster in St. Louis, because it is nearly impossible for a team to win three straight at Arch Madness without some help inside.
5. The Valley standings shaking out right
This is the one factor that is largely out of Altman’s control, but things are shaping up good so far. While Southern Illinois has captured its fourth straight regular season crown, the rest of the league is battling for position and seed for Arch Madness. Creighton is currently in third place and can clinch the three-seed in the Valley tournament with a win over Illinois State or a Northern Iowa loss. UNI can claim the third seed with a win and a Creighton loss, because they own the tiebreaker with Southwest Missouri State via their season series sweep. Creighton would lose a tiebreaker with SMS because of the Bears’ season sweep, so a Creighton loss and an SMS win would put the Jays as the five seed and pit the two teams against each other for a third time this season. Illinois State can finish no higher than fifth, having lost their last five conference games, and they need a win over the Jays and an SMS loss to stay out of the 3-6 match up on Saturday night.
Long story short, the Jays can clinch third place and a third game with Illinois State with a victory on Monday. They control their own destiny, plain and simple.