Creighton defeated Xavier 86-78 on Friday evening, advancing to Saturday's championship game against Providence, but the Musketeers played significant portions of the contest without two players that plagued the Jays in earlier contests.
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier's usual starting center, was limited to nine minutes of action in the first half, as he recovers from an MCL sprain. The 6-foot-10 junior scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the teams' first meeting, a narrow CU victory. On Friday, he made all three of his field goals, finishing with seven points, but he is health limited his contributions.
You know, we've played through Matt all year," said Xavier coach Chris Mack. "Matt goes with a sprained or strained MCL back-to-back nights, not the easiest thing in the world, but he's a guy that we play through, and we weren't able to do that maybe as much."
Due to Stainbrook's size and touch, the Jays opted to double team the big man in the post in previous matchups. When two Jays collapsed, Stainbrook showed his ability to exploit the scheme, finishing with four assists in both regular season matchups. Regardless of Stainbrook's availability, the Bluejays had a different plan for Friday night.
"We were going to do that if he was playing as well," Coach McDermott said of the plan to discontinue the previous plan. "We just felt we gave them too many 3-point shots the first two games, and probably increased their shooting percentage because of how open they were on the back side of those double teams."
Justin Martin, who scored 19 points and grabbed 16 boards in XU's win at the Cintas Center, missed time in the opening half after he was whistled for his second foul. Creighton led 26-20 when Martin headed to the bench; by time halftime hit, Creighton doubled its advantage, leading 45-33.
Although the tournament's three seed wasn't at full strength, it may not have mattered the way Creighton shot the ball. The Jays made 11-of-25 from deep, including 7-of-15 in the first half. Ethan Wragge made 5-of-9 from deep, while Austin Chatman and Jahenns Manigat each finished 2-of-4. Improved shooting was likely the difference in the result.
"We were 10-of-34 from the 3-point line that night, and if I'm not mistaken, I think Doug took 12 threes and was 5-of-12, and I think Ethan was 3-of-9" Coach McDermott said. "So two of our best shooters had some decent looks at the basket and didn't make them."
Although Doug McDermott hit just 2-of-6 from deep, he managed to lead all scorers with 32 points. The BIG EAST Player of the Year sank all 10 of his free throws and moved into fifth place on the NCAA's career scoring list. After scoring 25 points, just below his season average, in his first game in Madison Square Garden, McDermott has responded with 35 and 32-point outings in the conference tournament. He credits the first trip, a loss to St. John's, to easing his nerves when it matters most.
"I think it did," McDermott answered when asked if he has benefitted from the first trip this weekend. "I think we were kind of in shock mode when we got here the first time because we all just dreamed of playing here. So now to be here, we were a little more comfortable these last two games because we already saw the atmosphere, what it's like shooting here and what the crowd is like."
The crowd certainly was in Creighton's corner on Friday night. Numerous times the CU contingent drowned out Xavier's fan base with different chants, including a sing-along to the Creighton pep band's rendition "Sweet Caroline." The Bluejays appreciate their fans making sure CU is represented well.
"There was 3,000 or 4,000 people there tonight and just the sendoff we had, and the whole vibe of the game, it doesn't feel like we're 500 miles away from home or however far we are," Wragge said before being informed that he dramatically underestimated the distance between New York City and Omaha, which drew a hearty laugh and Coach McDermott questioning his geography aptitude.
"Whatever, it was just impressive," Wragge continue when the commotion subsided. "We're the road team traveling the furthest, and we can bring the most fans."
The Bluejays will likely have the crowd's support on Saturday night, when they'll square off with the fourth-seeded Providence Friars and the conference tournament title on the line. The championship match is just a week removed from the Jays' 84-62 win on "Senior Night," in Omaha. The environment won't be replicated, but the Jays are looking forward for another memorable night.
"It's going to be two good teams playing basketball and having the time of their life," Creighton's coach said. "…Really looking forward to it."
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