ST. LOUIS — If Creighton indeed is headed off into the sunset, the Bluejays will be doing it with a championship trophy in their grasp and nets around their necks.
Creighton won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament for the 12th, and possibly last, time Sunday by overcoming Wichita State 68-65 in a classic showdown of the league's heavyweight programs.
There is speculation that the Bluejays are headed for the new basketball-friendly Big East. If so, they treated their 6,000 or so fans among the 16,659 at Scottrade Center to a memorable last hurrah.
“We don't know what's going on,” said guard Jahenns Manigat, whose basket with 12 seconds to play clinched the victory. “If this was the last one, then it couldn't have ended better. This was storybook.”
The Bluejays locked up the Valley's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament with the win that improved them to 27-7. They will wait a week to learn where they'll be headed in their second straight trip to the tournament.
Many expect Creighton to learn in the interim whether it is headed to a new conference, though the Rev. Timothy Lannon, the school's president, said there has been not been a formal invitation extended to the Bluejays.
Does he expect one, Lannon was asked minutes after helping hand out awards to the Creighton players.
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“Only God knows,” Lannon said with a smile.
How things eventually unfold will be played out in board rooms. What played out on the court Sunday was two-plus hours of high basketball drama that will go down as one of the classic games in tournament history.
The Bluejays appeared to have the title firmly in their grasp when they led 65-53 with 4:21 to play. The Shockers weren't finished, though, staging a furious rally that trimmed their deficit to 66-65 when Malcolm Armstead buried a 3-pointer with 43 seconds to play.
Creighton called time after advancing the ball past halfcourt to set up its possession. The Bluejays wanted to get the ball to Grant Gibbs but the Shockers denied that option.
Instead, Manigat found himself with the basketball in front of the Bluejay bench with the shot clock winding down.
“I just wanted to get the ball to Grant and get out of the way, but it didn't work out like that,” Manigat said. “Everything else got shut down and I knew I just had to make a play. I decided to put my head down and head to the basket.
“Fortunately, I got a miraculous shot to go in.”
He might have considered it miraculous given the problems he has had making layups throughout his career. This time, the ball kissed off the backboard and dropped through.
“The Lord answered my prayers,” he said.
Creighton still had to survive Wichita State's last gasp to extend the game but Armstead's contested 3-pointer hit the side of the rim and bounced away at the buzzer.
“We all knew Armstead was probably going to get that last shot,” Bluejay forward Doug McDermott said. “We were switching ball screens with him all game. I stuck with that, switched onto him and tried to get a hand in his face without fouling him.
“Luckily, he missed.”
That provided Doug with an upbeat ending to a rough afternoon. He had scored 41 points, making 15 of 18 shots, when Creighton posted a 91-79 win over the Shockers nine days ago in winning the regular-season title.
In Sunday's championship, McDermott missed 8 of his 13 attempts and finished with 14 points. Foul trouble late in the first half and again midway through the second half forced him to the bench.
Fortunately, his teammates stepped up. Manigat led the Bluejays with 16 points while Ethan Wragge added 15. They combined to make nine of Creighton's 11 3-pointers. Gibbs made the other two, finishing with 11 points and seven assists.
And 6-foot-9 senior center Gregory Echenique turned in a monster all-around effort, scoring nine points, grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking six shots and changing the course of countless other attempts.
“He was such a difference-maker,” Bluejay coach Greg McDermott said. “He impacted the game so many ways because he made multiple plays. I couldn't be more proud of the way he played.
“When it's getting down to the end, you want your seniors to play with a sense of urgency. Without question, Gregory was really hooked up and ready to play this weekend.”
Creighton held Wichita State to 34.3 percent shooting and came within one rebound of battling the Valley's best rebounding team to a draw on the boards. Still, the Bluejays had trouble shaking the Shockers, who will take a 26-8 record into the NCAA tournament.
Wragge's early 3-point barrage staked Creighton to a 19-7 lead but Wichita State battled back to take a 28-27 lead on Armstead's steal and layup late in the half. Wragge's fourth 3-pointer of the first half put the Bluejays ahead 30-28 at halftime, and they eventually built their lead to 10 midway through the second half while McDermott was on the bench with three fouls.
McDermott's layup put Creighton ahead 65-53 and had many in the Bluejay congregation ready to party. The Shockers had other ideas with their late run.
“The thing that I enjoy coaching this group so much is that they are beyond a reasonable doubt the toughest group I have ever dealt with,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “No matter what they faced all year, they just continued to fight. They just continued to find a way to win.
“Their greatest attribute is their perseverance. We're down 10, there's five minutes to go, this is going to be our run. We don't shoot it great but then we make some shots.”
Carl Hall backed Armstead's career-high 28 points with 13 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots while leading the defensive effort that made things tougher this time around for McDermott.
“You just have to make things difficult for him and crowd him and try to take away his looks at the basket when he faces up,” Hall said. “I was just trying to make things difficult for him.”
That succeeded, but Creighton showed, as it has repeatedly during the past two seasons, that it's not just a one-man show. That's helped the Bluejays leave St. Louis each of the past two seasons with the tournament championship.
Whether Sunday's departure marked the end of Creighton's Valley era will be determined later. To a man, the Bluejays agreed that if it was indeed their last hurrah, it couldn't have come in grander fashion.
“It couldn't get better than this,” Doug McDermott said. “It came down to our last play against our rival, and we found a way to get it done.”
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