Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Creighton 67, Indiana State 62; Missouri State 60, Creighton 54

I’m racking my brains, trying to think of some creative (or “cutesy” as Mom would say) ways to describe the jubilation of Creighton’s double-digit comeback on Senior Night against Indiana Sate, or the frustration of watching the offense sputter while Missouri State kept the Jays at an arm’s length before posting a 6-point win to close out the regular season.

Sure, Senior Night was fun. I take that back; the second half of Senior Night was fun. The first half put most of Section 123 (and I can only assume the rest of the Qwest Center) on the edge of their seats swearing under their breath and hoping the Jays could climb out of an 11-point hole that David Moss had buried them in.

The Jays ended up outscoring the Sycamores 40-24 in the second frame, with Johnny Mathies (18), Anthony Tolliver (15), and Nick Porter (14) leading the way with double-figure scoring.

But as Senior Nights go, this one was going to make some of the younger folks in the crowd go “senior” a little prematurely, with no doubt some gray hairs sprouting from a few heads at The Phone Booth.

I mean, can’t we have one blowout at home every once and awhile? I guess with the Missouri Valley Conference as good as it is this year, those kinds of games are few and far between.

A Bear of a Time Shooting the Ball

Had the whole evening planned. I was going to watch Northern Iowa beat Southern Illinois in Carbondale, watch Illinois State shock Wichita State on its home floor, and then go to Pauli’s and enjoy the Jays and Missouri State battling in a close (but hopefully) win for Creighton.

I probably just should have stayed in bed Saturday, huh?

I didn’t really think Wichita State would lose to the Redbirds, but when I flipped on the T.V. after church and Porter Moser’s team was winning in the second half, I was pleasantly surprised. That didn’t last long.

The more frustrating outcome earlier in the day was Northern Iowa’s inability to run any of their famous set-offense magic. I mean, for as many sets as Greg McDermott supposedly runs, and for as dynamic as their backcourt-frontcourt combinations are, they sure do settle for a lot of, for a lack of a better term, crappy shots. This, as we all know, plays right into the hands of the Southern Illinois Salukis.

So, with two down and one to go, Panon and my buddy B-Kis and I roll into Pauli’s. It was a smallish crowd; a bunch of die-hards gathered around some of the flat screens above the bar.

I just wanted 20 wins. That seems like such a magical number in the world of college basketball; especially with all of the bracketologist-wannabe know-it-alls who talk about “locks” and “bubbles” and “seeds” like they operate some weird kind of all-in-one boutique at a farmer’s market.

More importantly, we controlled our own destiny. Win, and the 6 p.m. Friday game in St. Louis is all ours, complete with an opponent that plays a little less than 24 hours before the quarterfinal match-up. That’s as close to priceless as things come at Arch Madness.

Plus, I was really rooting for Tolliver to play a great game. He is 0-2 against the Bears in his hometown, his mom just got out of the hospital from a car crash, and I’m sure he had tons of friends and family gathered to watch him come home.

However, the Jays couldn’t overcome a putrid offensive night (even with pretty good defense all game), and my third wish for the night disappeared just about as quickly as the Bud and Miller Lights the three of us enjoyed under the Jim Hendry jersey hanging on Pauli’s wall.

The only thing that really went right was Anthony Tolliver’s game; again, just a phenomenal job by the junior center. 19 points (3-6 from three-point range; perfect 6-6 from the free-throw line) and 5 rebounds to go with 4 blocked shots and an assist. Other than Porter (13 points), every other Jay had offensive nights that were simply that – offensive.

But yet, there we were. The Jays have proven resiliency all season, and we led with just under 9 minutes to play and were only down by 4 in clutch moments late in the second half. But we just couldn’t get the shots to fall.

Later This Week:

Preview of Missouri Valley Conference “Arch Madness” Post-Season Tournament

Preview of Creighton-Bradley Quarterfinal

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Wichita State 62, Creighton 61 (OT); Creighton 67, Fresno State 62

No Love on Valentine’s Day

Be honest. How many of you thought the Jays had almost no chance on the road against Wichita State, with Josh Dotzler joining the rest of his injured mates on the end of the Bluejay bench? Don’t be shy … go ahead and raise your hands.

Raising hands is exactly what everyone at The Blue Room at Pauli’s was doing Valentine’s Night. A strong contingent of Jays fans packed the smoke-free, freshly decorated addition to the favorite Omaha pub, content to watch Dana Altman’s Jays travel to Wichita and try to steal a game from evenly matched WSU.

Long story short, the Jays lost. They were down early, played hard to get back into the game, took a lead in the second half, gave the lead away, made some key plays to force overtime, took the lead in the extra frame early, and lost on a last-second three-pointer after missing some clutch free-throws in the last 3 minutes.

Sure, everyone was frustrated. And yes, people wished they had pulled out the win. But it wasn’t because people expected them to do so, and they weren’t mad at the players or overly peeved by where the Jays were in the standings after the conclusion of the contest. It was because people in Omaha – and Jays fans around the world – love this team.

On a night when most people celebrated with their significant other the love in their relationship, Jays fans celebrated by watching the team that has amorously captivated thousands of Creighton fans.

They love Nate Funk’s hustle and toughness.

They love Johnny Mathies’ silent-but-strong leadership and resiliency.

They love Anthony Tolliver’s focus and determination.

They love Dane Watts’ strength, which is being tested by mononucleosis.

They love Josh Dotzler’s maturity, uncanny for a true freshman.

They love Nick Porter’s ability to play lock-down defense.

They love Pierce Hibma’s workman-like attitude (and that he’s part of the Iowa Connection).

They love Jimmy Motz’ condor arms.

No, wait; they love Dominic Bishop’s condor arms (and his floor-slapping, always-smiling demeanor).

They love Brice Nengsu’s oozing potential, and his willingness to learn.

They love Jeff Day’s support for his teammates.

They love Manny Gakou’s smile and excitement every time he steps on the court and puts in his mouth guard.

They love Dustin Sitzmann’s reigning three-pointers, especially against Nebraska.

This team continues to defy the injuries, and the tough Missouri Valley Conference schedule, and a city – and a fan base – as taken notice.

So while the Jays left Wichita without a win, there’s no doubt they arrived in Omaha with a few additions to a growing group of people who love this team.

The Qwest Center (and Downtown Omaha) (Bracket) Bustin’ at the Seams

The Jays needed to bounce back. Those same thousands of adoring fans were counting on it, and a post-Valentine’s date with national television and a sold-out Qwest Center Omaha was to be the scene for Altman’s team to get back on track.

Talk about pressure. Add to it the day-long media frenzy surrounding all of the Valley teams partaking in ESPN’s BracketBuster Saturday contests, with the Jays concluding the day’s action at 11 P.M., and the Dotzler-less Jays would need to find a way to prove they can beat an athletic team who causes match-up problems at the forward positions.

Fresno State was that team, but I don’t really know if any other BracketBuster opponent could have left Omaha with a win.

The atmosphere around downtown Omaha all afternoon and evening was palpable; those in attendance this night were going to be the litmus test of just how popular Creighton hoops has become. Most people infatuated with Bluejay basketball debated for days whether or not the late start and lack of a highly regarded opponent would spell doom for a capacity crowd that officials hoped for.

They were wrong.

What do 15,700 fans sound like? Ask the nationwide television audience that watched Creighton lead Fresno from start to finish. Better yet, ask the Jays fans in attendance (the ones who weren’t too drunk to forget); it is sure to be a game they will remember forever.

The score wasn’t nearly as impressive as the 100-69 rout of Chattanooga in last season’s made-for-television mid-major match-up, but the result is arguably more impressive. The Jays needed this one. They are banged up (again), trying to bounce back from a loss (again), and unsure as to what the next couple weeks will hold (as always).

They needed a win. The fans needed a win. The city needed a win (and lots of sappy publicity from The Worldwide Leader in Sports).

Anthony Tolliver (17 points, 8 boards), Johnny Mathies (13 points, 5 rebounds), Nick Porter (12 points, 9 rebounds), and Pierce Hibma (7 points, 7 caroms) made sure everyone got what they needed. The crowd left happy (and slightly inebriated) and Jays fans could go to sleep a little easier.

Too bad the same can’t be said for Altman and his team. The next two weeks will test the true mettle of this team. Or is that really the case? No matter what happens in the last two regular season games and at Arch Madness in St. Louis, this team will have defied adversity to stake its claim as one of Altman’s most tenacious and strong-willed squads. Don’t let anyone fool you – this team has accomplished so much given what they’ve dealt with in the last couple of months.

But you can bet Altman, his players, and Jays fans will hear none of that talk. There is so much left to achieve; this is the time last year when Nate Funk and Mathies and Jimmy Motz and Tyler McKinney took equal responsibility and finished the year on a winning note.

Who will step up and do that again? Whoever it is will have a throng of fans – and a city of thousands – behind them.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Southern Illinois 74, Creighton 67

Broken record, huh.

I rarely experience writer’s block, partly because I can't stop talking (which includes chatting to myself in the ol' noggin) and partly because I’m a pretty positive person by nature.

Plus, I’ve always made it a point – per my father’s advice – to keep these rants and raves as good-natured and encouraging as possible. That puts me at a slight disadvantage in the current media climate, where negativity and mudslinging seems to be more impressive to readers than thorough facts and analysis. No one around these parts is trying to be Edward R. Murrow – just trying to share some thoughts about Bluejay basketball.

That being said … COME ON!!! Can’t we beat these guys just ONCE!!!

One of the highlights of my senior year was 80-56, a score that will live in modern Creighton history as one of Dana Altman’s best coaching jobs. On March 10, 2003, Larry House, Brody Deren, Michael Lindeman, and a guy named Kyle Korver pasted Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game.

Creighton and Southern split their regular season series that year, which marks the last time Altman or any of his Bluejays walked out of the Qwest Center Omaha or flew out of Carbondale with a victory. In fact, Creighton hasn’t beaten SIU in The Phone Booth, making the Salukis the only undefeated Valley school at the new digs.

I honestly thought Altman had an answer for SIU this time around, though. Things started rough for the Jays in this year’s earlier meeting between these two squads, but I was confident that the home crowd and a little more confidence amongst the Jays could stem the tide, and that the Jays would win a close one.

Well, it was close (again), but Southern asserted itself as a royal thorn in Altman’s side (again).

Add Injury to Insult

Freshman phenom point guard Josh Dotzler hurt his knee midway through the first half and will miss the Valentine’s night road tilt at Wichita State. Dane Watts also suffered an injury in the second half and did not return. Altman’s bunch has been snake-bit by injuries all year, but with the homestretch in sight he needs all of his guys healthy because, honestly, he just doesn’t have a lot of numbers to throw at the situation.

With as stingy as Southern’s defense is, Creighton could ill-afford to lose either Dotzler or Watts, let alone both of them, and a nip-and-tuck contest quickly turned to the Salukis’ favor. The Jays certainly helped SIU out enough, though, with seemingly every Bluejay defensive stand giving way to a turnover and every solid 30-second stretch of defense negated by a basket with a waning shot clock.

And that is what made the game so sickening; the Jays played hard through the injuries, and they were close for 30 minutes, but they didn’t play smart and no one stepped up. Everyone was waiting for Anthony Tolliver to assert himself, but someone had to get him the ball and he had almost no touches in the second half. He finished with 10 points and 7 rebounds, but 7 of those points came in the first half, and 7 of his points came at the free-throw line.

And so the game went; an arena full of fans waiting to explode, a team looking for some clutch shots to fall, and a 6-game losing streak against one team snapping an impressive 16-game Jays home winning streak.

Stay positive, stay positive, stay positive…

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Creighton 72, Drake 67 (OT); Creighton 60, Evansville 56

There are dozens upon dozens of clichés about the road; it is long, hard, tough, unforgiving, etc., etc. Poets have cemented legendary status with prose about traveling winding (and forked) pathways, while musicians continue to lament about never-ending tours, the uncertainness of life on the road, and the problems one can find on dimly lit street.

If Creighton has done anything this year, it is prove these old axioms true; there is nothing good about playing on the road. The Bluejays hit the pavement last week for two of the easier games on their schedule, but schedules (and paper, for that matter) tend to lie. The Jays handled both Drake and Evansville in those teams’ visits to the Qwest Center Omaha, but Bluejay fans knew that the road swing would prove to be as nerve-wracking as the entire season has seemingly felt.

“Qwest Center East”

Last Saturday, thousands of Creighton fans trekked to the middle of the heartland – Des Moines, Iowa – for what has become an annual pilgrimage. The atmosphere of watching the Jays square off as the visiting team is markedly different than the cozy confines of The Phone Booth, and each year nearly half of Drake’s Knapp Center is full of Jays fans hoping for a Creighton victory.

It hasn’t been that easy the past few years, though. The Bulldogs always put up a fight in their own building, with most of the CU-DU games in Des Moines coming down to the final minute (or overtime) the past few seasons.

CU fans made the trip in carpools, while still others hopped a ride on one of many bar-sponsored buses – some of the intoxication in the bleachers showed. One group of fans donned blue t-shirts with “QWEST CENTER EAST” scribed across the front. And it wasn’t an exaggeration.

The Creighton contingent was amazing, seemingly willing Dana Altman’s team back from multiple double-digit deficits. Oh, and Anthony Tolliver, Josh Dotzler, Pierce Hibma, and Johnny Mathies might have had something to do with that, too.

Tolliver posted a double-double against the Bulldogs, despite being pummeled by various non-call fouls. His 15 points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes set the tone for a raucous Bluejay crowd. Hibma stoked a fire, too, with three three-point baskets that pared Drake’s lead down, and he had a few clutch steals in the second half that helped the Jays get back in the ballgame.

Mathies struggled a bit from the field, with his bum knee limiting what he was able to do off the dribble, but he still played 37 minutes and led all Bluejay scorers with 16 points.

But the stat of the night was freshman Dotzler’s 10 assists and just 1 turnover while almost single-handedly breaking Drake’s consistent backcourt pressure.

It took great individual efforts from a couple of different Bluejays to fight through a sluggish start and post a tough road victory, but they were able to do something that this team is quickly becoming known for – they pulled it out, no matter what the obstacle.

Lost Somewhere in Indiana

Creighton’s 4-point win over Evansville marked the first game this year that I didn’t see with my own two eyes either in person, on TV, or over the Internet. Talk about a bad game to have to listen to on the radio!

The Jays and Purple Aces traded leads most of the first half, and then Evansville took the lead for what felt like an eternity.

However, when it came to crunch time, a steady hand and an almost-forgotten shooter saved the day.

Tolliver posted his second consecutive double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 rebounds (9 defensive) while putting the Jays on his shoulders. He even collected a career-high 7 steals, while flirting with a triple-double.

Jimmy Motz shrugged off a recent slump, continued to fire from long range, and hit a game-clinching three-pointer with nearly no time left on the shot clock and less than one minute to play in the game.

The Jays have had numerous folks step up in big spots during this great 11-game stretch in which they are 10-1. They’ll need to be firing on all cylinders today against Southern Illinois, however, and protect the home court in an increasingly close race for the Missouri Valley Tournament crown.

Thank goodness the game is at home; those poets and singers are right.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Creighton 63, #25 Northern Iowa 55

You’d think that after a win against a conference rival, a team coming to Omaha ranked for the first time in school history, the words would just pour on to the blank page on the computer screen.

But words are hard to come by after the last two home games at the Qwest Center – or The Phone Booth as some Jays fans are referring to it lately. The usual clichés apply when talking about the frenzied crowd participation and the stunning turn of events as the Jays clawed back from deficits against Wichita State and the Panthers.

I don’t think the city of Omaha has ever seen anything like this in my 25 years on this earth. I might be wrong, but when was the last time nearly 15,000 people came out for an 8 p.m. Valley game (no Huskers or Cyclones involved) on a school night the first week of February? When was the last time there were dance-offs between animated Creighton fans on the Jumbotron, cementing certain people as crowd mascots?

It took two and a half years, but the atmosphere at the Q is steadily ascending in volatility. The first season of the new digs, a veteran team lost its court leader after a 10-0 start and underachieved the rest of the season, ending in the NIT. Last year, fans continued to get comfortable in their new seats, watched the Jays lose a couple heartbreakers at home early in the year, and then picked up the intensity in sync with Creighton’s late-season flourish.

From the outset, this year was supposed to be different. A team chalked full of talent, with a poster child for the Valley (Nate Funk) and an exciting home schedule (Xavier, Nebraska, Dayton, and the usual cast of characters in the conference), all of which contributed to a buzz that collected volume and fans in mid-November.

The crowds this year have been amazing; with at least three of the university’s top 5 largest Omaha crowds coming this season. But people aren’t just coming to watch the Huskers or Funk, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury. People are coming to watch because this team grabs your heart and doesn’t let go.

It might sound corny, but it is true. This team is defying odds right now, and the Phone Booth Phanatics love it. Everyone on the team seems like a genuine, likeable kind of guy. Dominic Bishop and Anthony Tolliver and Jimmy Motz flap their arms like condors, getting the crowd on its feet and feeding a fan frenzy that grows louder by the game.

Josh Dotzler and Johnny Mathies and Dane Watts play hard-nosed, full-contact hoops, with the hard-working ticket holders eating every minute of it. Then there are the excitable and always-smiling Brice Nengsu and Manny Gakou, foreigners both by birth and to a welcoming and caring city always looking to take care of its out-of-towners.

Take Nick Porter, for example. He played arguably his best game in a Bluejay uniform against UNI, and you could almost feel the brimming Qwest Center thinking, in unison, “I knew he could play like this!”

Porter came to Omaha as a sort of enigma. His pedigree was that of a true scorer, a big-bodied guard hardened on the courts of some of the best junior college basketball west of the Rocky Mountains. However, a complicated and nagging knee injury kept him off the court all last season, while the Jays continually searched for someone to become the third scoring threat behind Funk and Mathies.

Porter looked sluggish and slow in his first couple games as a Jay this year, but he entered the starting line-up when Funk, Motz, and Pierce Hibma all missed time congruently with injuries. After becoming a starter, Porter has emerged as not only a solid offensive threat still learning the ins and outs of Valley-brand basketball, but more importantly as a go-to, lock-down defender.

Porter still has defensive lapses, as any guy new to Division I basketball would, but in two games against Valley preseason Player of the Year Ben Jacobsen Porter has had a huge hand in shutting down Sioux City’s second best Valley player.

Jacobsen ended with 8 points on 3-15 shooting from the field (including 0-5 from long-range distance), marking the second time Creighton denied him double-digits. It is not a coincidence the Jays swept the regular season series, and it magnifies the most important aspect of this Jays team.

Defense. When all else fails, play defense. Porter, Dotzler, Hibma, Mathies, and Bishop all shared defensive switching duties on the Panthers’ perimeter players, and it was the communication and tight guarding that allowed the Jays to come back from a 5-point halftime deficit.

During that comeback, and the second half that saw the Jays shoot 65% from the field and 71% from 3-point land, the crowd applauded numerous defensive stops with standing ovations. The Jays – and the fans – get it now; defense needs to be this team’s calling card the rest of the year.

But I’m sure Dana’s been telling them that since practice started in October. Think he knows a thing or two about basketball, huh?
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