PHILADELPHIA — Doug McDermott added to his ever-expanding legend Friday, scoring 27 points in an NCAA tournament win over Cincinnati and setting another school scoring record in the process.
But in Bearcats coach Mick Cronin’s eyes, the difference in the game was a former chunky Rutgers center who has transformed himself into the beast of the Bluejays.
Gregory Echenique went 5 for 7 in scoring 13 points in Creighton’s 67-63 second-round win at the Wells Fargo Center. He also grabbed seven rebounds and blocked a shot in 28 body-bruising minutes.
“Doug McDermott is a great player, but I don’t think Gregory gets enough credit,” Cronin said. “We play in the Big East, so we see real players all the time.
“He can play anywhere for anybody. I thought he was the difference.”
Cronin had coached against Echenique once before, when the 6-foot-9 Venezuelan was a slightly less mobile freshman at Rutgers during the 2008-09 season. The Echenique he remembers bore little resemblance to the player that helped bring an end to the Bearcats’ season.
“Gregory did a great job inside,” Cronin said. “I knew watching him on film how much he had improved.”
Some of that improvement comes with the maturing of Echenique’s game. A lot of it is tied to the physical specimen he has transformed himself into since he first arrived at Creighton.
Echenique was a big man in every sense of the word when he played at Rutgers. His playing weight was listed at 270. He likely carried around a few more pounds as a Scarlet Knight, and he definitely did when he showed up at Creighton in the winter of 2010 following eye surgery.
There were plenty of times during his first season as a Bluejay that he struggled to get through the simplest of conditioning drills.
“He could not have played 28 minutes in a game as physical as this one was 2½ years ago,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
McDermott is proud of the player Echenique has become. He now packs 260 well-muscled pounds on that 6-9 frame. His body fat has dropped from somewhere in the teens to about 8 percent. His stamina has improved.
“We have a strength coach and a nutritionist that have worked with him and educated him on how to get where he needed to be,” Greg McDermott said. “But Gregory had to do it, and at the end of the day, he had to have some discipline to change his diet and his work habits.
“He’s a wonderful young man, and he puts his team first. He’s been a difference-maker for us.”
Echenique had a series of difference-making plays against the Bearcats. One of the biggest might have been his basket while getting fouled after he rebounded a missed 3-point attempt. He made the free throw to give Creighton a 50-44 lead with 9:54 to play.
Then, after Cincinnati had battled back to tie the game on Sean Kilpatrick’s basket with 3:31 remaining, Echenique battled his way for a layup 27 seconds later that put his team ahead for good.
“Gregory’s physicality was the difference,” Cronin said. “You can only do so many things to Doug.”
McDermott made 7 of 15 shots against the Bearcats, including a pair of 3-point baskets. He was perfect on 11 free throws, and he grabbed 11 rebounds.
Creighton also got a dozen points from sharpshooter Ethan Wragge, who made 4 of 5 3-point attempts.
“We could have done a better job on Doug,” Cronin said. “It’s more feasible to stop Gregory from getting five layups around the rim and keeping Wragge from getting catch-and-shoots because we lost him in transition.”
The final outcome provided Echenique with a sense of validation. He remembers how some questioned his move to Creighton, wondering why a guy would trade the prestige of the Big East to head halfway across the country to play in the Missouri Valley.
“I took a lot of heat when I left Rutgers,” he said. “It’s good now. It’s good to prove to people why I did what I did and how special of a team we have and how special Omaha and Creighton are to me This definitely means a lot to me.”
The win pushes Creighton into a third-round game against Duke, a school that tried to recruit Echenique in high school. On his recruiting visit, Echenique got to take in a game against North Carolina, the Blue Devils’ hated rival.
“They treated me real well on my visit,” Echenique said. “Getting a chance to experience a Duke-North Carolina game was really something. That’s something I’ll always remember.”
Now, Echenique will have a chance to do something memorable against the Blue Devils. This is the second straight year Creighton has advanced within one win of a trip to the Sweet 16. North Carolina ended that dream last year with an 87-73 win.
“Last year we got to play North Carolina, this year we get Duke,” Echenique said. “I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity for us, a big opportunity to once again try to prove people wrong.
“This is what we’ve worked for. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I’m confident we’ll put a plan together and we’ll be able to come out and compete.”
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