Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creighton 73, Bowling Green 71

Worth the Wait

A lot can happen in 10 days. A college basketball team, and probably more likely its fans, can sit idly during spring break following one of its worst performances of the season and watch as college basketball pundits debate your efforts and qualities as a squad. Some like to call it a resume; with the fervor and intensity with which the information is argued about and vetted, it seems more like financial bailout legislation or some laws governing the search for weapons of mass destruction.

The way Jays fans talked and Vegas bookies laid odds on Monday and Tuesday, the only thing in the path of destruction was the Bowling Green Falcons. The Jays came in as a #1 seed in the NIT, double-digit favorites to “survive and advance” against BGSU and host any combination of Kentucky, UNLV, Nebraska, New Mexico, UAB, or Notre Dame in the next 10 days. This despite what had happened during the last 10 days which, as we all know, was nothing.

If it seems to happen every year, that’s because it does. The “it” is the slow start in Creighton’s first postseason game following the layoff between Arch Madness and either the Big or Little Dances. CU has made 14 postseason appearances under Dana Altman (10 of those first-round games in either the NCAA or NIT tournaments), and 12 times Creighton has trailed at the half. And it isn’t always because they were playing better teams; more often than not, they were rusty. That’s what happened against Bowling Green, and coupled with some deft shooting from the Falcons, it almost cost the Jays a chance at defending their #1 seed and home court advantage all the way to Madison Square Garden.

What does rusty look like at The Phone Booth? Try 0-11 from 3-point range in the first half. Try 34% from the field in the first 20 minutes. Conversely, check out the MAC champion Falcons. They hit 6 treys in the first half, shot 47% from the field, and with 8 minutes to play they held a 14-point lead. The effort was there from Altman’s Jays, but shots weren’t falling. A usually feisty crowd was neutered a bit by the neutral trappings of an NIT-sanctioned “home” game. And CU wasn’t exactly giving the fans anything to get overly excited about.

So Justin Carter decided he would get things going. His 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals in 11 minutes, coupled with solid play at the front of Creighton’s press, paved the way for some momentum to swing the way of the Bluejays. He had his hands full all night with the Falcons’ Nate Miller, who averages nearly 14 a game and went for 22 against CU. But he was the spark to start what P’Allen Stinnett and Antoine Young finished.

Two weeks ago, Stinnett played what I considered to be one of his least inspiring games of basketball in his two years as a Bluejay. I wasn’t sure how he or the other players would react after feeling like they were snubbed by the selection committee, but the sophomore unloaded one of his best all-around efforts against Bowling Green. He scored 6 points in the first half while picking his spots carefully, but Stinnett went for the kill a couple times in the second frame. He didn’t miss a shot from the field in the last 20 minutes, hit 8 of 9 free throws after attacking the rim, and dished 4 assists. Oh, and he committed just 1 second-half turnover. In all, Stinnett put up 18 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal in 31 minutes. He spent a good chunk of time in the second half on the floor at the same time as Young, who will take the reins of the point guard position next season following Josh Dotzler’s graduation.

Young didn’t dish as many assists as Dotzler did (1 to 4, comparatively), but his 12 aggressive points and speedy defensive closeouts helped the Jays battle back from that double digit deficit. He was needed offensively because Booker Woodfox was ice cold, just 2-11 from the field. Creighton didn’t lead from the 17:56 mark of the first half until the 4:44 mark of the second half, and they eclipsed Bowling Green on the scoreboard at that time because of a Woodfox 3-pointer (he hit just 2-9 from long range).

But in the end, Booker got just enough help from Carter, Stinnett, Young, and the rest of his teammates to salt the game away. I was really impressed with Bowling Green’s energy and focus, but they couldn’t become the first #8 seed to upset a #1 in the years since the NCAA took over the NIT.

And with the win, Creighton will host Kentucky on Monday. You read that correctly. Kentucky. At the Qwest Center. As assistant coach Brian Fish said today on Big Sports 590, “not Western or Northern or Eastern Kentucky. Kentucky.” It might take awhile for Creighton fans to get over the name on the front of the jersey, but I’m sure the 15,000-plus who will be in attendance in a few days will let the Wildcats know what they think of the winningest program in college basketball history.

They won’t have to wait nearly two weeks to do it.


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