After opening the Missouri Valley Conference regular season with a home victory against the University of Evansville, the No. 11 Creighton men’s basketball team hit the road and improved to 2-0 in the MVC with a 79-72 win against the Illinois State University Redbirds. The Redbirds, picked in the preseason to finish second in the Valley behind Creighton, are now 0-2 in conference play and 9-5 on the season, while the Jays are 13-1 overall.
“This was a fabulous win for us,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “I don’t think many teams in our league would come in here and win.”
The Redbirds were determined to shut down Creighton’s All-American junior forward Doug McDermott, who averaged 26.5 points per game in December and was named player of the month by ESPN.com, and their game plan was pretty effective as McDermott was held to just 15 points and nine rebounds. However, Illinois State had to send extra defenders McDermott’s way to accomplish that, and two other Jays were able to take advantage.
The Redbirds decided to basically not even guard senior guard Grant Gibbs. Gibbs, a pass-first player who is leading the MVC in assists, is taking less than six shots per game. But when Illinois State decided to lock down on McDermott and let Gibbs shoot, the savvy senior took advantage. Gibbs scored 16 points on a season-high 12 field goal attempts (making 6). Gibbs also hit two of his four 3-point attempts, pulled down six rebounds and dished seven assists with only one turnover.
“They were sagging off me, and we’ve had some teams do that,” Gibbs said. “I just have to pick my spots to look for open shots. I can make open ones, there’s no doubt about that. There are a lot of advantages when people are going to play like that. I can see the floor a lot better, they can set those low ball screens to get me in the lane. I just have to make the adjustment. Teams are going to take away different stuff but luckily we have a lot of options.”
Gibbs scored from deep, mid-range and in the paint and was still able to run the offense and distribute the ball. But Gibbs’ impact went beyond the numbers, as he made a few of the intelligence and hustle plays that he has become known for, including tipping his own missed shot to a teammate when he knew he couldn’t secure the rebound and diving on the floor for a loose ball, which he then sent down court from the floor to a teammate for an open 3-pointer.
The other beneficiary of the defense Illinois State ran (particularly the zone defense) was junior forward Ethan Wragge. Wragge, who had been mired in a 2-18 shooting slump from deep over the previous four games, exploded to tie season highs with 18 points and six made 3-pointers, including one from about 25 feet out in transition.
“The last four or five games … I haven’t been shooting the ball normally, but I’ve actually been making a lot of shots in practice,” Wragge said. “When I first got in we called a play, and I got one to go in … I got them to fall early, and it felt good.”
Wragge also took turns with senior center Gregory Echenique guarding Illinois State’s leading scorer and rebounder Jackie Carmichael, and the duo held him to 10 points on 5-12 shooting and six rebounds, well below his season averages of 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Both teams came out firing away from deep, with 2 3-pointers from ISU’s Tyler Brown and one from McDermott as the first three buckets of the game. Then Gibbs scored the next seven points, and McDermott added a free throw for an 8-0 Creighton run before Illinois State responded with a layup from Carmichael. But three straight 3-pointers by Wragge stretched CU’s lead to 12 at 20-8 seven minutes in.
The two teams traded shots for the next 11 minutes, with the Redbirds cutting Creighton’s lead to five three different times before Creighton built the lead back up to 12 at 42-30 with two minutes remaining in the half. However, Illinois State responded with a 9-0 run including a couple offensive rebounds to end the half, cutting the deficit to three at the break.
“Coach reiterated all week that they are a team that can go on runs like that,” Gibbs said. “They’re extremely streaky, and be ready for those nine, 10-point swings where they can pile threes onto each other and go on those run. So we were prepared to play that way. Obviously going into halftime, not the way we wanted to go in, but I thought we made enough adjustments at halftime.”
The two teams went back and forth in the second half, with neither team able to take control. The Redbirds managed to take second-half leads of 63-61 and 65-64 with less then 10 minutes to go, something no team was able to do against Creighton since Boise State upset the Jays in Omaha on Nov. 28.
The Jays regained the lead on a 3-pointer by junior guard Jahenns Manigat with six minutes to go and never relinquished it. Illinois State kept the game close right down to the wire, trailing by three at the 3:19, 0:54 and 0:09 marks. But Creighton took care of the ball and hit free throws to seal the deal. Creighton’s seven-point margin of victory was the biggest lead either team held in the second half.
Creighton hit 13-25 3-pointers and shot 52.8 percent from the field overall, won the rebounding battle 35-32 and recorded 19 assists with only 12 turnovers. Illinois State also got hot from deep, making 13 of their 28 attempts, but Creighton held the Redbirds to just 42.2 percent from the field overall.
In addition to excellent defense against Carmichael, Echenique finished with 12 points and five rebounds. Sophomore point guard Austin Chatman finished with seven points, four assists and seven rebounds. Manigat knocked down two of his four 3-point attempts, while sophomore guard Avery Dingman scored five points and pulled down three rebounds off the bench.
The Jays return home to face off against the Indiana State University Sycamores, who have also gotten off to a 2-0 start in Valley play. Tip-off is set for 2:05 p.m.