NORMAL, Ill. — Creighton found itself in an unaccustomed spot during the second half of Wednesday’s game against Illinois State.
For the first time since Nov. 28, the Bluejays were behind in the final 20 minutes. The Redbirds twice grabbed slim leads only to see No. 16 Creighton come up with clutch plays down the stretch in pulling out a 79-72 Missouri Valley win.
“We were in a ton of close games last year and, especially early on, won a few,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “We’re comfortable in tight games. We have that belief in each other and that togetherness you need.
“This obviously was our first (close) one of this year, but we’ve played in a lot of them with this group.”
Creighton’s first 12 wins this season came by margins of 10 points or more, as had its only loss. Illinois State, needing a win after dropping its Valley opener at Indiana State, did everything it could to make things uncomfortable for the Bluejays.
The Redbirds took some early punches that put them in a 12-point hole seven minutes into the game, but battled back to within 42-39 at halftime. They got the deficit down to a point early in the second half before the Bluejays finally started getting some stops on the defensive end to take a 61-55 lead.
Illinois State countered with an 8-0 run, taking its first lead since 6-5 when Bryant Allen buried a 3-point shot with 9:17 to play that made it 63-61. The Bluejays countered with a three-point play by Gregory Echenique to regain the lead before Jon Ekey’s basket gave Illinois State its last lead (65-64) with 7:14 remaining.
Jahenns Manigat’s 3-point basket put Creighton ahead for good, and the Bluejays got key baskets from Doug McDermott (two) and Echenique before finishing off the victory from the free-throw line.
“This atmosphere here and at Wichita State is as tough as it gets,” McDermott said. “We knew we had to bring it, and we did. We didn’t play our best basketball, but guys like Grant and Ethan really stepped up. It’s awesome to come out of here with a win.”
Ethan Wragge, who had been locked in a December shooting slump, made his first four 3-point attempts and finished the game 6 of 9 from beyond the arc to lead Creighton (13-1, 2-0) with 18 points.
Gibbs, taking advantage of the Redbirds’ double-teaming of McDermott and Echenique, added 16 points to go along with seven assists and six rebounds. McDermott finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, while Echenique had 12 points and five rebounds.
“This is a fabulous win for us,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I don’t think many teams in our league are going to come in here and win.”
Especially given the desperate nature of the Redbirds. Picked second behind Creighton in the league’s preseason poll, Illinois State wanted to do everything it could to avoid an 0-2 start to conference play.
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What it couldn’t do is contain all of the options Creighton can throw at an opponent. The Redbirds’ defensive strategy was to plug up the middle and make life miserable for Echenique and Doug McDermott, who already weren’t feeling chipper as each is battling strep throat.
Illinois State held McDermott nine points below his 23.5 scoring average. Echenique had to battle for every one of his 12 points, but that left open opportunities for Creighton’s other players.
“They’re a hard team to guard,” said Illinois State coach Dan Muller, whose team dropped to 9-5 and 0-2. “Wragge and Gibbs really hurt us in the first half. Gibbs made some shots that he hadn’t made. Wragge, we knew he could shoot, but we had some guys go a little brain dead to give him some shots.
“I thought our zone was good. They shot 50 percent in the second half but made some baskets late to get there. You have to pick your poison with them.”
Wragge had missed 22 of 28 3-point shots in six December games. He made his first four attempts against the Redbirds, saw his fifth barely rim out and then buried a 25-footer to finish with 15 points at the half.
Gibbs had 12 of his points at the break, making 5 of 8 shots from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers. But Creighton, up 42-30 after Wragge connected on his final 3-pointer of the half, saw its lead dwindle to three points after Illinois State scored the final nine points.
Five came on the Redbirds’ last possession. Jackie Carmichael grabbed a rebound, scored and was fouled to get his team within 42-36. Carmichael missed the free-throw attempt, but Nick Zeisloft chased down the rebound, then hit a 3-pointer with five seconds left in the half to juice up the crowd.
It also got Greg McDermott a tad excited.
“He was pretty fired up,” Doug McDermott said. “I think he spilled some water on me. But we knew we were going to have to pick it up.”
Greg McDermott admitted he got a bit agitated during halftime but stayed cool, calm and collected even when Illinois State made its second-half charge.
“I don’t panic with this group,” he said. “I have a lot of experience and guys that believe in each other. Some coaches need to yell and scream to motivate, and I did a lot of that at halftime in the locker room.
“These guys get it. They understand what they need to do and how we need to do it to be successful. The last thing you want to do as a coach is press the panic button. When you watch our team, there is no panic in them. They just continue to play.”
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>> Video: Postgame press conference with coach Greg McDermott and players Ethan Wragge and Grant Gibbs: