PEORIA, Ill. — Creighton's smackdown of Bradley on Wednesday night set up a showdown for a championship on Saturday.
The Bluejays blew open a tight game with the kind of scoring run that hadn't been seen much in the past five weeks in rolling to an 80-62 victory in front of 7,730 at Carver Arena. Creighton outscored the Braves 19-2 in a six-minute span to build its lead from two to 19.
“That's the best we've played in the second half in some time,” Bluejay coach Greg McDermott said. “That was the team I coached in November, December and most of January. It was good to see them back.”
Creighton, which had lost six of 11 games, needed to defeat Bradley to have any chance of playing for a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title when Wichita State comes to town for Saturday's final game of the regular season.
Wednesday's developments turned the game into a winner-take-all matchup as the Shockers saw their one-game lead on Creighton disappear in a 59-56 home loss to Evansville. That leaves Wichita State and the 23-7 Bluejays tied with 12-5 league records heading into Saturday.
“This is something I've been dreaming for my whole life,” said Doug McDermott, who led Creighton with 32 points and 11 rebounds. “I grew up watching this league as a little kid. Now, to have the opportunity to do that in front of a home crowd, it doesn't get much better than this.
“If you would have told me a couple of weeks ago that we'd have this opportunity, I would have called you crazy. We stuck with it, we're back to having fun and we're looking forward to a packed house on Saturday.”
Doubts about Creighton's championship worthiness surfaced earlier this month when consecutive losses to Indiana State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa left the Bluejays with five league losses. They've bounced back to beat Evansville, Southern Illinois and Bradley to crawl back into the title chase.
“We just had to keep our heads down and work and not feel sorry for ourselves,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “That gets you nowhere. We kept that out of psyches and bounced back to finally play well tonight.”
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Keeping their heads while everyone around them was losing theirs, Greg McDermott said, might be the real reason his team is playing for a championship Saturday.
“I'm not sure we panicked as much as everyone around us has,” the coach said. “We have to trust each other. You shouldn't read too much into what people say when things are going great or read too much into it when they aren't going well.
“People create reasons why things aren't going well, and that's ridiculous. Basketball is a long season, and you're going to have some ups and downs.”
That steadfast approach allowed Creighton to weather a rocky first half Wednesday, when 12 turnovers kept the Bluejays locked in a struggle with the Braves (16-14, 7-10). Creighton trailed most of the first 20 minutes before it scored the final four points of the half to take a 32-28 lead into the break.
The turnovers allowed Bradley to score 11 points and compensate for getting outshot and outrebounded in the first 20 minutes.
“We played into their strength because they want to turn you over,” Gibbs said. “We were making some silly plays. We knew we had to take care of it, and guys did a lot better job in the second half.”
Bradley tied the game 35-35 on a 3-pointer by Ka'Darryl Bell and was within two, 42-40, with 16:01 to play. Six minutes later, the Bluejays were sitting on a 19-point lead that eventually grew to 27.
Doug McDermott started the decisive 19-2 spurt with back-to-back baskets. Jahenns Manigat followed a layup by Will Artino with a 3-point basket to make it 51-40 before Walt Lemon Jr. scored for the Braves.
The Bluejays ran off the next 10 points — a 3-pointer by McDermott, jumpers by Artino and Austin Chatman and a three-point play by McDermott. That hiked the lead to 61-42 with 9:59 to play.
“We got a little groove going and pushed the tempo,” said Artino, the 6-foot-11 sophomore who had 10 points. “And we got some consecutive stops in a row, which was the big thing in helping us break out.”
Creighton shot 57.1 percent from the field in the second half, cut its turnovers to three and finished off a dominant 41-20 showing on the boards. The Bluejays got points from the nine players who formed Wednesday's rotation, with McDermott leading the way with another virtuoso performance at Carver.
He scored a career-high 44 points in last season's visit here. Wednesday's performance pushed his point total in three visits to Peoria to 93. He made 12 of 17 shots from the field and all seven of his free throws.
“I wasn't excited about the timing of catching him, because he hasn't been playing as well as the last few years,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “We caught him on a bad night. We were doubling him and he still got 17 shots. That's how good he is — he's a big-time player.”
The loss spoiled Bradley's Senior Night in which the Braves honored four players — Dyricus Simms-Edwards, Will Egolf, Jake Eastman and Milos Knezevic — who were making their final appearance at Carver.
“We just weren't sharp,” Ford said. “I don't know if we got caught up with the emotion of the day a little bit. We haven't played that poorly at home all year.
“I feel bad for our seniors more than I'm angry at our team. It's late in the year, and we put a clunker in against a team that's been ranked in the top 15. We're nowhere near as bad as we played today.”
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