CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Creighton was tough enough Wednesday night to put itself in position to win against Northern Iowa.
The Bluejays' resolve then turned to mush down the stretch as a string of missed free throws and turnovers helped fuel a Jake Koch-led rally that allowed the Panthers to pull out a 61-54 victory before 6,970 at the McLeod Center.
After taking a 48-43 lead with 5:27 to play, Creighton missed six of 10 free throws, committed three turnovers and didn't make a field goal until Doug McDermott's meaningless dunk with half-a-second to play.
“We picked a bad spot for a couple of turnovers and to start missing free throws,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “It's like coach said: If we're not turning it over that much, maybe we survive those missed free throws. If we're not missing free throws, maybe we survive the turnovers.
“But those two together, that's an instant formula to lose on the road.”
In losing its third straight game, Creighton finished with 18 turnovers against a Northern Iowa team that feeds off such mistakes. The Bluejays shot just 35.7 percent (5 of 14) from the free-throw line.
“This isn't rocket science,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “You cannot go on the road and turn it over 18 times and shoot 35 percent from the free-throw line and expect to win. It's plain and simple.
“We played well enough defensively to win and we rebounded well enough to win. A lot of careless mistakes, and their free-throw defense was really good tonight, and those things came back to bite us.”
Also taking a big chomp out of the Bluejays was Koch, who scored 13 of his team's final 16 points. Koch had made one free throw in the game's first 35 minutes before hoisting his team on his back and carrying it to its fourth straight victory.
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Koch finished with 14 points in becoming the 36th Northern Iowa player to score 1,000 career points.
“Jake was terrific at the end of the game,” said Northern Iowa freshman Matt Bohannon, whose 3-point basket that snapped a 49-49 tie was the only points not scored by Koch in crunch time. “As a senior, the way he stepped up was huge. He carried us through that one.”
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said Koch did a little bit of everything in the final five minutes to contribute to a win that left the Panthers 15-11 and 8-6 in the Missouri Valley.
“He was everywhere,” Jacobson said. “The most fun for me was to see the emotion he showed a couple of times. He's a laid-back guy that has had a really, really good career here.
“To have that kind of finish to a really important game and show some emotion like that, that was really fun to see.”
Until Koch got things turned around at the end, the Bluejays were showing signs of emerging from the funk that had produced four losses in the previous seven games. While they continued to struggle offensively, they had made enough plays to claw their way back from a deficit that had reached 10 points at the start of the second half.
After Marc Sonnen made a 3-pointer to give his team a 35-25 lead nine seconds into the final 20 minutes, Creighton held Northern Iowa to eight points over the next 15 minutes. The Bluejays took their first lead of the second half on Will Artino's free throw with 11:42 to play, then got two baskets from Gregory Echenique and one from Gibbs to take a 48-43 lead.
Echenique's second basket, on a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Gibbs, would prove to be Creighton's next-to-last of the game.
“We made some mistakes that led to some easy baskets for them,” said Doug McDermott, who led the Bluejays with 15 points but scored just three after halftime. “Missed free throws and careless turnovers. We can't afford those if we want to win on the road.”
Baskets by Seth Tuttle and Koch started the Northern Iowa comeback, and Koch tied the game with 3:44 to play when he followed a turnover by Gibbs with a short jumper.
On Creighton's next possession, Koch got a hand on a Gibbs pass and tipped it toward halfcourt. Sonnen came up with the ball and appeared headed for an easy basket. Hustling back, Jahenns Manigat cut off Sonnen, but the senior guard dished the ball to Bohannon on the wing.
The freshman then hit the biggest shot of his first season, burying a 3-pointer that put Northern Iowa ahead 52-49 with 3:16 to play.
“Marc's locked onto me, and I knew I was going to get the ball,” said Bohannon, a 41-percent shooter from beyond the arc. “I got my feet set, and when I shot it, it felt pretty good. That's our team right there.
“Marc made an unselfish play and I was able to make a big shot for us.”
Koch then finished off the Bluejays. He made two baskets to stretch the lead to 56-51, then converted five of six free throws in the final 26 seconds.
“That second half was a struggle for me, both offensively and defensively,” said Koch, who missed his first seven shots before going 4 of 6 from the field down the stretch. “I have to credit my teammates. They stuck behind me the whole time, and they kept telling me that I'd get an opportunity. That's just what I did.”
Creighton held the Panthers to 37.5-percent shooting from the field and finished with a 37-33 rebounding advantage. But winning those effort parts of the game wasn't enough to keep the Bluejays from dropping to 20-6 and falling out of a first-place tie in the Valley with Wichita State.
The Shockers defeated Drake on Wednesday to improve to 10-4, while Creighton finds itself tied with Indiana State for second at 9-5.
Creighton now faces a Saturday trip to Evansville to face a team that has lost just two of 13 home games this season.
“The world doesn't care that we failed,” Greg McDermott said. “There's no time to feel sorry for ourselves. We have important games ahead of us, an important one Saturday.
“We have to use all the energy we have to get back into a better frame of mind. I like the way we competed tonight. There are positives we can take from this one, but a team that was shooting almost 80 percent from the line suddenly couldn't make a free throw. And a team that was averaging 11½ turnovers a game was throwing it all over the gym.”
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