PHILADELPHIA — Creighton came into Friday's NCAA tournament game against Cincinnati peppered with questions about whether it was tough enough to play with a Big East team.
It left with a 67-63 victory that might have some folks in Big East country wondering if they are tough enough to hang with the Bluejays.
The same team that its coach called out a month ago for maybe being too nice for its own good traded body blows for 40 minutes with a Cincinnati team that was supposedly bigger, stronger and tougher. In the end, it was a bunch of Bluejays who walked away, and in a few cases limped away, with the second-round victory that sets up Sunday's matchup with second-seeded Duke.
“We've been working for this moment since we lost to North Carolina last year,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said, referring to the defeat that knocked the Bluejays out of last year's tournament. “It is every kid's dream to get a chance to play against Duke in the NCAA tournament.
“It really doesn't get much better than that.”
Chances are, the seventh-seeded Bluejays won't face many games tougher than the one they survived Friday in front of 18,431 at the Wells Fargo Center. Cincinnati won't win any prizes for its offensive skills, but the Bearcats can man-up on defense with the best teams in the Big East or anywhere else.
And they attack the glass with abandon.
So, which team won the rebounding battle Friday? Creighton by one.
Which team held the other to lower shooting percentages? The Bluejays: They limited Cincinnati to 42.2 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc.
And which team refused to back down? Well, that one was a draw, but the supposedly soft guys in the white uniforms more than held their own.
“People always question our toughness,” Creighton center Gregory Echenique said. “We can definitely play tough. We've showed that before and we just proved it again today.
“We take it personal. Obviously, it's disrespectful when people say that, but it's OK. We had a chance to prove it and we did. And if we get challenged again, we'll be there.”
After the game, Echenique received three stitches for a cut above his eye and five more in his head. Grant Gibbs talked to reporters wearing shorts spotted with blood. Anyone would have loved to have a cut of the ice concession, because the Bluejays will need plenty for the bumps and bruises they sustained.
“That was one of our most physical games of the year,” Gibbs said. “There were not a lot of easy shots to be had. Buckets definitely were at a premium.”
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Especially down the stretch for the Bluejays. They made just one field goal after Cincinnati tied the game at 54-54 with 3:31 to play. Echenique battled inside for a layup to put his team back in the lead for good 27 seconds later, and Creighton scored its final 11 points from the free-throw line.
Still, Cincinnati had a chance to extend its season when Sean Kilpatrick launched a 3-point attempt with six seconds to play and his team trailing 66-63. The ball appeared to be in but popped out, to the relief of the Bluejays.
“You really can't put into words the kind of feeling you have when that ball came out,” forward Ethan Wragge said. “You just know that you've put a lot of work and sweat into this, and it's good to see that pay off.”
Cincinnati's Cheikh Mbodj came up with Kilpatrick's miss but turned the basketball over before he could attempt a shot. Creighton then got the ball in to Austin Chatman, who missed his first free throw with three seconds to play but sealed the victory by making his second.
The sophomore also made two free throws with 1:07 to play and two more with 14 seconds left to keep his team in front.
“I knew I had to make those,” Chatman said, “and it felt good to knock down those shots.”
Chatman finished with eight points, Wragge 12, Echenique 13 and McDermott a game-high 27. That helped offset the four players who scored in double figures for Cincinnati.
Kilpatrick led the Bearcats with 19 points. He made 7 of his first 15 shots. He won't likely soon forget his 16th and final attempt of the season.
“It was a clean look,” he said. “It felt good going off my hand, but it just rolled right out. I mean, it was really in the rim, and then it just came out.”
The loss was Cincinnati's eighth in its past 14 games and ended the Bearcats' season at 22-12.
“Our effort was tremendous, as it's been all year,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “It's obviously a tough result for us, but at the end of the day, you've got to base your judgment on a team on 'do they give everything they have?'
“I think these guys are A-plus in that category.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott was saying the same about his bunch, which will take a 28-7 record into Sunday's game against Duke. Entering Friday's game, McDermott thought his team would have to get the tempo in its favor.
The last thing he wanted was a fistfight with the Bearcats. In the end, maybe he was underestimating the punch his Bluejays pack.
“Our toughness was good the whole game,” he said. “Our guys were tough enough to stay in the fight on the backboards, and that was the difference in the game. It's not easy against a team like Cincinnati, because they're not going to stop coming.
“I was hoping we could get the pace more in our favor. In some ways, we had to beat them at their own game.”
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