Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Kentucky 65, Creighton 63

A Win-Win Loss

This is always the hardest piece to write. Every year, about this time, Creighton’s basketball season comes to end with a loss. Some have been more difficult for fans and players to accept than others, but each leaves a sting that usually takes ample time to recover from.

With a few minutes left on Monday night against the Kentucky Wildcats, I allowed myself a split second thought of ending this season with a win. The Jays went toe to toe with a team littered with blue chip recruits and a few McDonald’s All-Americans for 39 minutes, the energy and atmosphere inside The Phone Booth were palpable, and for a fleeting moment I envisioned doing the same thing all over again two nights later.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Jays failed to win back-to-back postseason games yet again. But for the life of me I can’t remember a CU loss after which I felt so proud and satisfied. Perhaps that’s why, driving home from the Qwest Center for the final time this season, the outcome felt more like a win (in the long term) than a loss.

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Let’s be clear, first and foremost, about what was expected of Dana Altman’s team coming into this once-in-a-lifetime visit from the Wildcats to Creighton’s home gym. The Jays were favorites in Vegas. They had home court advantage thanks to the #1 seed given to them by the NCAA, which runs the NIT event. But I’m sure a straw poll of Jays fans and casual basketball observers would have been about 50-50 (at best) when asked if they expected a Bluejay victory.

Didn’t matter. From the opening tip, the players were focused in all phases of their efforts. For hours before tip-off the fans were into it, too, packing Farrell’s to listen to the CU pep band and pound a few beers. A few Wildcat sweatshirts floated through the crowd of Jay backers, the nearly identical shades of blue blending into one sweet cacophony of basketball interest.

They braved a tornado warning, by the way. Those who showed up to The Phone Booth later than 4:45 but before 5:30 ended up being corralled into another area of the convention center so as to let the storm pass. But the environment was just beginning to turn hostile.

Minus pregame music on the scoreboard, and unable to harness the energy that comes from the LCD boards illuminating the arena with CU-specific marketing messages, the crowd was rowdy anyway. Sure, there were some people there to watch Kentucky. And there were people there to watch Kentucky and Creighton. But a vociferous majority (that’s for you, Verne!) was there to support about a dozen players and some coaches, and that’s it.

To Creighton’s credit, the players and coaches didn’t disappoint anyone in the building. I’m sure that in the back of some folks’ minds, the idea (or nightmare) existed that for all the excitement and buildup to the game the Jays would come out flat, get too caught up in “the name on the front of the jersey,” and get rolled. But to the appreciation of 16,900-plus in the Q and thousands watching across the country on ESPN, and much to the chagrin of opposing coaches and similar basketball programs nationwide, the Jays stepped up.

They stayed even on the boards with Kentucky. If I would have told you a few months ago that would happen, I’m 100% you would have slapped me. Seriously. They won the turnover margin, by 1. They out-swiped the Cats (9-7). They made more 3-pointers than UK. They limited Jodie Meeks, an All-American, to just 16 points in 30 minutes (8 points beneath his average) and Patrick Patterson to just 12 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes.

Unfortunately, it was in the areas that carried them so far this season that they experienced major setbacks against the Wildcats. The Jays shot 44.4% as a team this year from the field, good for 3rd best in the Valley and 126th best in Division I. Against the Wildcats Creighton put itself in a whole by shooting just 32% in the first half. And while the second 20 minutes saw them hit their season average (11-25 from the field), the Jays’ 37% paled in comparison to Kentucky’s 45% clip for the game.

And to be perfectly honest, Creighton wins on Monday if they hit some free throws late. The Jays shot 74.9% from the charity stripe this season, putting them in the top 20 nationwide in that category. Unfortunately for Altman and his players, Kentucky is a top 10 free throw shooting team, and the Wildcats didn’t miss a free shot in the second half (10-10 from the line).

Individually, many on Creighton’s roster gave their best efforts of the season. From a defensive standpoint, P’Allen Stinnett hasn’t played a better game as a Jay than he did on Monday. He accepted the challenge of trying to deny Meeks the ball all evening, and he gave everything he had on the defensive end of the court. Sure, Meeks score 16 points, but 7 of those came on the free throw line. It was difficult for him to run in the flow of Kentucky’s offense due to the pressure applied by Stinnett and guys like Josh Dotzler and Antoine Young for smaller lengths of time.

Justin Carter, who was overcome with emotion following the loss, gave Creighton fans a glimpse of what next season might be for him when he has the chance to slide to his natural small forward position. His 15 rebounds occurred because of determination and grit, which fueled his broad shoulders in battle against taller and in some cases stronger Wildcats. He had 7 offensive boards, which equaled the total rebounds for Kentucky’s Patterson. His pickpocket move of Meeks in the waning moments of the game set up one of the night’s most disheartening moments, but it was also pretty freaking outstanding defense.

Speaking of playing with determination and grit, enough can’t be said about Kenny Lawson and Kenton Walker stepping their games up against UK. Lawson put up 12 points, 5 rebounds (all offensive, by the way), 2 blocks, 2 steals, and an assist in 24 minutes. Walker spelled him off the bench for 16 minutes and was perfect from the floor for 7 points and blocked a shot.

And Booker Woodfox. What can you say? With the missed free throws, the turnovers, and Kentucky’s timely baskets, Creighton still had a chance to win in the last few seconds. Woodfox got a decent shot attempt from 3-point range, as Altman used the same play that had allowed Woodfox a clean look for the game-winner at home against Southern Illinois this season. This time, just like that, our forward set a clean screen and Woodfox’s shot was on target. Just a tad long.

Seriously, I went home and watched it at least 5 or 6 times. It was perfectly on line. It was just a bit strong. The guy had just played 25 minutes of the hardest basketball of his life, undersized against his defender every time he caught the ball. He still went for 18 points, grabbed 6 rebounds (one off his career high), drilled 3 3-pointers, and left commentators and fans breathless every time he had the ball in his hands.

Jays fans will be able to watch him shoot 3s one more time, but it was his last shot in a CU uniform that could have seriously injured thousands of people in the crowd. If his 3-pointer would have won the game against Kentucky, all bets were off as to how much damage some of the sections inside the Q would have sustained. It would have been epic.

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And there it is. The first real “would have” of this post. The Bluejays clawed. They tried to overcome a poor night shooting the basketball. They exerted a huge amount of effort and energy, feeding off a frenzied crowd. Yet it came down to a couple clutch plays, plays that didn’t go the Jays’ way. And on the car ride home, Mrs. Creighton Otter and I were left with “would have”s. But my wife, always the optimist and realist, had a few great ideas.

She wanted to record the game on DVD and send it to each of the returning players. She wants them to watch how well they played, how much effort they brought to the court, and how much focus they displayed. She wants to show them the individual victories collected during what was ultimately a loss. She wants them to build on those wins, using them to pave the way for the returning Jays during the long summer ahead. Lift the extra weight. Shoot the extra shots. Spend the extra time in the gym or on the treadmill.

Prepare to win.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the article. Just make sure you don't make dvd's for the players. NCAA would frown on that, extra benefits!

10:33 AM  
Blogger Creighton Otter said...

Noted. Wouldn't want to get all UCONN up on the program, right?

10:36 AM  
Anonymous heathgunderson84@yahoo.com said...

I would love to get a DVD copy of the game! I will buy it from you. Email me if you make them!

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh on the bench at the end changed our chance of pulling this off IMO. His defense might have kept one of those baskets that KY off the scoreboard. Great end of season post!

5:25 PM  

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