CU 68, Valpo 43; CU 80, Houston 72; CU 60, Hawai'i 76
It wasn’t quite Christmas, but it was Christmas Break, and the Bluejays left Fresno after arguably their worst performance of the year and touched down amongst the palm trees and island breezes to take part in the Rainbow Classic. Dana Altman’s team was guaranteed three games in three days against the likes of Valparaiso, Houston, Charlotte, Nebraska, San Francisco, and host team Hawai’i.
Signs of Christmas were plentiful during the three broadcasts beamed back to the Omaha area on Cox Cable, including a television announcer who looks like Santa Claus, Nate Funk and Dane Watts dropping stocking stuffers left and right on opposing defenses, and a second half lump of coal in the tournament championship game.
Creighton 68, Valparaiso 43
The tournament started slowly for the Jays, as yet again they failed to crack the 40% shooting mark in the first half of the first round game against Homer Drew’s Valparaiso Crusaders. In fact, Valpo shot over 40% in the first half while the Jays continued to misfire from the field, including a 1-8 effort from three-point range. However, Creighton made a concentrated effort to work the ball down low, which resulted in 12 free throw opportunities to Valpo’s zero foul shots.
The Jays made 8-12 from the charity stripe, which resulted in taking a 7-point halftime lead into the locker room.
The rest of the game can be summed up with four words: “Nate,” “Funk,” “Pressure,” and “Defense.”
After halftime, the Jays forced 4 Valpo turnovers and 4 Valpo missed shots, while Creighton made 6 of their first 8 shots and moved to an 18-point lead with just under 16 minutes to play.
It was a flash of offensive prowess and defensive intensity rarely seen by this team so far this season, and it was sparked by quick hands and steals by Anthony Tolliver, Josh Dotzler, and Funk.
Oh, and Funk scored 20 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, including a ridiculous near-half court bomb with the shot clock winding down. Funk finished the second half 8-10 from the field and 4-5 from long range for 20 points in 14 minutes, and he paced a team that shot 59% in the second half, including 50% from three-point range.
There was little Valpo could do, and it showed exactly what could happen if this Jays team could play on the same page for the majority of 40 minutes of action. Creighton forced 19 turnovers while only committing 9 themselves, and recorded 14 assists.
And with that, the Jays moved along in the winners bracket to take on a Houston team that had the entire wrath of a conference breathing fire at them.
Creighton 80, Houston 72
Whether it is correct or not, Tom Penders and his Houston Cougars basketball squad has become a lightning rod of criticism for Missouri Valley Conference basketball fans specifically and mid-major basketball fans in general. Toward the end of last season, when his Cougars were passed up by numerous Valley teams for NCAA tournament at-large births, Penders had this to say in the Washington Post.
“Penders praised the Valley as a conference but added that it does not include a
team he would be afraid to play on a neutral court. "What is RPI, garbage in and
garbage out?" Penders said, speaking in general about the formula. "How do you
build RPI, go out and play no one? If it's just a computer thing this year, I
was born in 1945, I don't know much about computers. . . . The committee will
dictate what guys do the next few years. If teams are rewarded for playing no
one in the computers, then we should all do that."
It was also said by Mr. Penders that a Valley team couldn’t break his team’s half-court press, a crazy statement made to look tame only by the incessant ramblings of Maryland Terrapin head coach Gary Williams.
But despite countless rumored phone calls from the Little General, Barry Hinson, neither Maryland nor Houston scheduled MVC schools this year, and so it was up to Creighton to stick it to Penders on behalf of the conference brethren.
Trouble is, Houston’s roster looked extremely similar to the Fresno State Bulldogs, a team that shot 30 three-pointers and made 13, burying the Jays in California right before the team left for sunny Hawaii. Houston came into the Rainbow Classic semifinal as one of the flashiest offensive teams in the country, both in scoring potency and the ability to shoot (and make, on occasion) the three-point shot.
And shoot from long range they did; 19 three-pointers, in fact, making 6 of them en route to a 2-point halftime lead over the Jays. Creighton stayed in the game behind the hot strokes of Dane Watts (11 points) and Isacc Miles (10 points), and the team made 6 of its 10 three-point attempts in the first frame.
Little did Bluejay fans on the Island and back in The Big O know that Watts was just getting started, and that it would mark the junior forward’s greatest performance in the White and Blue. Watts connected for 10 more second-half points, finishing with 21 points, 10 rebounds, 4 rebounds, and just 1 turnover in 30 minutes of play.
And little did Jays fans know that Miles, the strong but still-learning freshman guard, would put up 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in 23 minutes of play.
And little did Tom Penders know that not only could the Jays break his team’s press, but that Creighton could stifle Houston into shooting less than 40% for the game and just 30% from the three-point arc.
The most interesting part of the entire evening — it didn’t look like Penders called an offensive play the entire game. His players literally ran the ball up the court and immediately shot a perimeter jump shot. Sometimes they were covered. Sometimes they were open. Almost all the time it was a quick, ill-advised three-pointer. And before he knew it, his team was headed for the consolation bracket.
And the RPI had nothing to do with it.
Hawai’i 76, Creighton 60
Call it running out of gas or running into the hot hand, or call it anything but pretty. The second half effort against the host Rainbow Warriors on the eve of Christmas Eve left much to be desired, and the tournament that started out on such a high note for a Jays team looking sorely for some bright spots ended with a thud.
All you need to know about the Rainbow Warriors are the names Ahmet Gueye and Matt Lojeski. Gueye had the game of his life, scoring 19 points and grabbing 8 rebounds while outplaying his counterpart Tolliver for the majority of the game. Lojeski was simply unstoppable — 12 of 15 from the field, including 5-6 from long range, for a game-, tournament-, and career-high 33 points and Rainbow Classic Most Outstanding Player honors.
The Jays and Warriors played virtually even in the first half, but then Creighton’s offensive woes crawled out of their luggage and jumped back on to the court. The Jays shot 28% in the second half while allowing Hawai’i to shoot 57%, and they were outscored 45-30 in the second frame to gather runner-up accolades at the holiday tournament.
Funk had another solid outing, going for 25 points on 8-19 shooting, but he made just 1 of 5 three-point shots and couldn’t hit some buckets with the Jays still in the ballgame late into the second half.
Creighton suffered some of the same frustrating trips on offense that they experienced in the losses at Nebraska, Dayton, and Fresno State, with Altman unable to get clutch baskets from his perimeter players when he needed them most.