PHILADELPHIA — Welcome to the Big East.
Austin Chatman, who spent 37 minutes dribbling between flying ninjas, walked around the Creighton locker room with an ice pack taped to his back.
Gregory Echenique, a mountain of a man playing at his peak, had a row of stitches above his right eye, and another new set on the back of his head. To go with a wide grin.
“Surprisingly, my body doesn't feel too bad,” the Creighton center said. “I'm actually happy about that.”
Over on the other side of the room, the glue man was being held together by tape. Grant Gibbs sat in a chair with oversized ice packs strapped to both knees. He hadn't moved from that chair in an hour.
But the pack of reporters surrounding Old Man Gibbs was more interested in the blood stain splattered on his game shorts.
“I think it was when I got tripped bringing it down toward the end,” Gibbs said. “I've got an old-man knee, and I rolled my ankle on that play. Oh, well. I've got a day to rest.”
Back in the press room, Gibbs' blood stain would be known as a symbolic badge of courage for CU's 67-63 win over Cincinnati on Friday. But the fact is: Gibbs started the year with blood on his jersey and a bandage under his eye after the season opener against North Texas.
These Jays have been a tougher outfit than we gave them credit for. But sometimes to get a reputation, you have to stare down the lion in the pit.
Or, in this case, in an NCAA tournament game here in south Philly, off Broad Street, against a brass-knuckle crew from the Big East.
It was a salty win for the lads from Omaha. Their reward: Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, live and in color on Sunday in the NCAA tournament.
The Dookies didn't come up much in the locker room. Not yet. There was so much at stake in this game: not only to advance and survive, but show their wares to a Wells Fargo Center crowd of more than 18,000 who were checking out the new Big East addition and seeing if it could hold up under Big East, um, conditions.
The Jays have played some athletic teams this year, and Wichita State is big and physical. But the Bearcats were a different breed of oomph.
And very rarely, if ever, have the Jays had to pluck out a win like this. By going toe to toe with their combatant. By outmuscling a bigger foe on the boards, 32-31. By manufacturing baskets against Big East-tested, in-your-grill defense.
UC provided the most athletic and long and physical defense the Jays had seen this year. Fortunately, the Bearcats don't have a lot else to offer. They made some tough shots. But they don't run. They aren't skilled offensively. They're just good enough to make it ugly and make you look uglier.
The Valley boys won it the East Coast way, and for the hoop aficionados in the gallery, it had to be a sign that these new guys are going to be all right.
“I know I speak for everyone at Creighton that we're honored to be part of (the Big East) and excited to contribute,” CU coach Greg McDermott said. “We've got some work to do, but hopefully today was a sign that maybe we're not quite as far away as we think we are.”
Whatever more Creighton is going to spend on the transition to the Big East, it's definitely going to need more ice for the training room.
“We talked all week about how it was going to be a fight, and taking the fight to them,” Ethan Wragge said. “Rebounding was a point of emphasis. We knew they were going to think of us as an offensive team from the Valley, so we had something to prove.
“It was tough. They muscle you around, jack you in the back. That's the first time I've ever seen Doug (McDermott) get blocked.”
These kinds of wrestling matches tend to take the paint brush out of McDermott's hands. Cincinnati forward Titus Rubles smothered Doug, fronting him, bodying him out of the paint and all but placing handcuffs around his wrists. Rubles did a top-notch job on the CU star. Twice, Doug made his patent spin move to the hoop and had the scoop shot blocked. Twice.
“Oh my gosh,” Doug said. “I don't remember when that's happened.”
Rubles was so good on Doug that the Bearcats didn't need to double-team him. But Doug still had 27 points and 11 rebounds. He's THAT good.
Up on the tube, Charles Barkley was calling for the superstar to take over the game. But this wasn't that kind of game. And it took all four of Wragge's bombs and all five of Echenique's power baskets inside, and all the other grinders CU threw in, to get this one done.
And it still almost unraveled. CU was up 60-54 and had the rebound with 53.1 seconds left when Doug grabbed a rebound. Things looked good. Then they didn't. Engulfed by two defenders, McDermott brought his elbows up to pass it and struck a UC player in the head. Flagrant foul.
Tough break. It's the right call. It's just a bad rule.
Fortunately, the Bearcats had no idea how to close this. They missed free throws and finally a 3 near the buzzer.
Maybe there are teams in the Big East that would have finished them off. But the Jays just beat one of the NCAA teams from the Big East. And they haven't even started recruiting Big East players yet.
Then again, looks like they have some on this roster. Including one former Big East guy with something to prove — 40 fewer pounds and lots of muscle later.
“It's definitely a good feeling, because I know I took a lot of heat when I left Rutgers and went to Creighton,” Echenique said. “People questioned it, why would I leave a Big East team. It's good to prove to people why I did what I did.”
Life is good at Creighton, period.
“What a week,” said CU's president, the Rev. Timothy Lannon, as he bounded out of the victorious locker room. “The Pope is a Jesuit, we're in the Big East and we're playing Duke.”
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