EVANSVILLE, Ind. — One three-word phrase no coach wants to use in mid-February dogged Greg McDermott’s thoughts in the days leading up to Saturday’s game against Evansville.
“That’s what this one was for us,” the Creighton coach said. “You try not to approach it that way with the team because we were feeling enough heat as it was.”
The temperature kept rising as the Bluejays fell behind by 16 points midway through the first half. But they buckled down on defense, made some shots they had been missing during a three-game skid and gutted out a 71-68 victory over the Purple Aces.
Doug McDermott scored all 21 of his points after Evansville surged to a 31-16 lead with 7:49 left in the first half. McDermott’s 19th and 20th points, on a basket with 4:55 to play, made him the 15th player — and the first junior — in Missouri Valley history to score 2,000 points.
His free throw with seven seconds left was Creighton’s final point as it fought off a last-ditch Evansville rally that would have spoiled the big day.
Then again, individual accomplishments hardly were on McDermott’s mind after what Creighton has been through the past month, when losses in five of eight games took some of the luster off its 17-1 start.
“I credit my teammates and coaches for putting me in position every single night to get points,” McDermott said. “It doesn’t really mean much to me right now because we’re in the midst of the season, fighting for a conference title. I’m sure down the road it will mean more.”
The victory in front of 6,838 at the Ford Center allowed Creighton to take sole possession of second place in the Valley, as Indiana State lost at Bradley on Saturday. The Bluejays (21-6, 10-5) are a half-game out of first, as Wichita State plays Sunday at Illinois State.
Evansville, which dropped to 14-13 and 7-8, used a pair of streaks in which it made six shots in a row to put Creighton in double-digit holes twice in the game’s first 12 minutes. The first six-shot barrage gave the Purple Aces a 14-3 lead.
Creighton got back within 16-15 before Evansville made six more shots in a row to leave the Bluejays staring at a 31-15 deficit.
Instead of panicking, Creighton started plugging away.
“We knew we had to take it possession by possession and one stop at a time,” said guard Austin Chatman, who added 12 points after scoring 14 in the Bluejays’ previous two losses. “It was tough, but the coaching staff kept reminding us to keep battling.”
Closing the first half with a 16-5 surge proved crucial for the Bluejays, who trailed 36-31 at halftime.
“That game’s over if we don’t get back within shouting distance at halftime,” Greg McDermott said.
The Bluejays got back in the game by finally starting to make some shots. After shooting 40.4 percent from the field in the previous three losses, Creighton opened the game by making just 5 of its first 15 shots.
The Bluejays closed it by converting 19 of their final 31 attempts (61.1 percent). They shot 59.1 percent in the second half and finished the game at 52.2 percent.
They also converted 14 of 17 free throws after making 5 of 14 from the line in Wednesday’s 61-54 loss at Northern Iowa.
“There is such a fine line to this game,” Greg McDermott said. “If we had made 82 percent of our free throws in Cedar Falls, we probably win that game. If we would have shot 35 percent today, we would have lost this game.
“Sometimes it just takes a little luck.”
A dose of grit doesn’t hurt, either. Creighton fueled its comeback by getting stops on defense. The Bluejays held Colt Ryan, the Valley’s other current 2,000-point man, to 3-of-18 shooting from the field. The Purple Aces finished the game shooting 40 percent from the field.
Take away the two six-shot streaks in the opening half, and Evansville made just 12 of its other 48 shots (25 percent).
“Creighton just kept plugging away,” Ryan said. “We kind of let the air out of the balloon ourselves. We were jacked up at the start of the game, making shots and forcing them into some tough shots.
“When we stopped making shots, we didn’t get back on defense in transition. Give them the credit. They sustained their effort.”
Avery Dingman’s 3-pointer gave the Bluejays their first lead, 42-40, with 16:26 remaining. Evansville regained the lead one last time, 46-45, on Ryan’s three-point play with 13:45 to go.
Chatman’s 3-pointer started Creighton on a 20-10 surge that McDermott capped with his milestone basket. It put Creighton ahead 65-56, but the Purple Aces refused to fold.
They scored eight straight points over the next three minutes to make it 65-64 on Adam Wing’s layup with 2:06 to play. The Bluejays, who have had trouble closing out recent games, countered with a tip-in by Grant Gibbs, then made 4 of 6 free throws in the final minute.
They also came up with a couple of key stops, the most important being when they forced the Purple Aces into a shot-clock violation while protecting a 68-66 lead.
“I’m proud of the way we battled,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They had us on the ropes, and we showed some toughness and courage. We had our chances there at the end, but we have to be a little smarter in certain situations.
“Creighton is very talented, but they’re also a real cerebral team. If you make mistakes, they make you pay for them.”
The Bluejays cashed in Saturday to nail down that must-win.
“We did the right thing when we were down,” Doug McDermott said. “We didn’t hang our heads after they got off to that hot start.
“We put ourselves in a position to win at halftime, and we came out with a lot of intensity. It was great to see.”
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