Creighton coach Greg McDermott needed but three words to sum up sophomore Will Artino's contributions Tuesday night against Southern Illinois.
“He saved us,” McDermott said.
Artino infused some life into his teammates and the 17,311 at CenturyLink Center with perhaps his finest performance as a Bluejay. He made all six of his shots from the field in matching his career high of 13 points to help Creighton pull out a 59-45 victory against the Salukis.
The victory allowed Creighton to stay a game behind Wichita State in a Missouri Valley championship chase that seems to be grinding down the Bluejays.
McDermott spent 30 minutes talking to the team after the game — highly unusual for a coach who sometimes gets to the postgame press conference before some media members do. His message to the players is that they need to find a way to recapture the spirit that made them an efficiently offensive team in the first two-thirds of the regular season.
Part of the problem, McDermott said, is that the Bluejays are not as offensive as they need to be to each other.
“If they have a fault, it's that they are too good of guys,” McDermott said. “They probably don't demand as much of each other as they should at times. Those attributes are going to get them a long way in life. They're going to be really successful, they're going to be great husbands and fathers.
“But it takes a little more to be a teammate sometimes. That's what we're trying to capture. I think we can get there. There are a few changes that we're going to have to make if we want to win a championship, and the championship still comes through Omaha. We still control our own destiny.”
Creighton's win improved the Bluejays to 22-6 and 11-5 in the league. Wichita State won its second difficult road game in a row Tuesday, defeating Indiana State and improving to 12-4 in the Valley and 23-5 overall.
Both teams will step out of league play Saturday to play in the BracketBusters series, with Creighton traveling to St. Mary's and Wichita State playing host to Detroit. The final week of conference play will see Creighton play at Bradley and Wichita State host Evansville before the Shockers and Bluejays square off in Omaha on March 2.
Southern Illinois did everything in its limited power to take some of the luster off that regular-season finale by scratching and clawing for 40 minutes before finally being subdued.
The Salukis hardly are the same team that Creighton walloped by 30 points in Carbondale three weeks ago. Southern Illinois had won three of their previous four games, and coach Barry Hinson is getting maximum effort from his undersized and undertalented roster.
“I like my basketball team,” said Hinson, back coaching in the Valley after spending the previous four seasons in an administrative position at Kansas. “I don't know if you guys know this but we weren't favored tonight. Our guys didn't know that.
“We don't have a lot of talent but we understand our deficiencies. There are going to be a lot fans that walk out of here tonight that don't know the difference but those that do, they saw my peckerwoods and goobers out there playing their tails off.”
The Salukis made it a 40-minute struggle by doing everything they could to try to follow Hinson's game plan.
“We wanted to make it the most boring game you've ever seen,” Hinson said. “Make it just awful.”
The Salukis gummed up Creighton's efficiency on the offensive end, forcing 15 turnovers that led to a 15-13 advantage in points off turnovers. They were aggressive on their offensive end, snaring nine offensive rebounds that produced a 13-4 edge in second-chance points.
In the end, it was Southern Illinois' own offensive inefficiency — the Salukis shot 35.3 percent from the field — and Artino that ultimately decided this one.
The 6-foot-11 Artino, who had averaged 7.1 minutes in Creighton's first 27 games, played 17 against the Salukis. He had four points at halftime, bettering his season average of 3.2.
He provided the Bluejays with some separation in the span of five minutes in the second half. With Creighton leading 35-31, Artino scored on back-to-back possessions to double the lead. Nevin Johnson, who also played well off the bench, made two free throws to give the Bluejays their first 10-point lead of the second half.
On Creighton's next possession, Artino alley-ooped a pass to Johnson for a layup, then made a free throw after getting fouled on a strong move in the middle on the Bluejays' next trip down the court.
That made it 44-34, and Grant Gibbs' two free throws and two more by Doug McDermott on a technical on Hinson pushed Creighton's lead to 48-36 with 7:45 remaining. The Salukis never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
“Will really saved us with his energy off the bench,” said Gibbs, who also scored 13 points for the Bluejays. “It would have been a completely different game if he hadn't played the way he did. His contribution was huge.”
Artino downplayed his own effort, saying his job as a reserve is to be ready when called upon.
“The coaches have preached that all year,” Artino said. “You have to be ready when you're number is called. You don't know when it's going to come or how many minutes you're going to play.
“The one thing I've tried to do is not get down if I'm not playing enough or not get too high if I'm playing a lot. I've just tried to stay focused when coach calls my name.”
Artino's performance, which also included five rebounds, two assists and one steal, helped offset an off-night by Creighton All-American Doug McDermott. He made just 4 of 11 shots in scoring 10 points, his second-lowest total in conference play.
Hinson admitted his team paid special attention to trying to stop McDermott, who had 21 points in the earlier meeting.
“Our goal is to make other guys beat us,” Hinson said. “It was fairly obvious who was the focal point of our defense tonight and what we wanted to do. We wanted to shut down the players to go to quite often.”
That allowed Artino to shine.
“Will is so active, he's so long and he has a great feel,” Greg McDermott said. “He understands how to find openings on the court, and his teammates delivered it to him. We needed him.”
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>> Video: See highlights from Creighton's win over Southern Illinois:
>> Video: View coach Greg McDermott's postgame comments:
>> Video: See what Creighton's Grant Gibbs had to say after the victory: