HOYAS RALLY LATE TO BOUNCE BLUE JAYS
NEW YORK — Moments after upsetting the DePaul Blue Demons in the first round of the Big East tournament one night earlier, the Creighton Blue Jays talked about wanting another shot at the Georgetown Hoyas, who had dominated them in a pair of regular season meetings.
For a while, it appeared that 10th-seeded Creighton (14-19, 5-15 Big East) would make amends against second-seeded Georgetown (21-9, 13-6 Big East) and become the first double-digit seed in 11 years to reach the Big East Conference tournament semifinals.
But after going on a big run to lead by a half-dozen points with as many minutes remaining, the Blue Jays wilted during a game-closing 15-4 Hoyas run — fueled by 12 points from Georgetown’s best player, junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera — in a 60-55 quarterfinal loss at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Smith-Rivera’s late heroics gave him a game-high 25 points to save the 23rd-ranked team from an embarrassing early ouster in its quest to break a tie (seven titles) with former conference member Connecticut for the most Big East tournament championships.
For Creighton, it was another frustrating loss, its 10th by five points or less this season.
“We needed it,” head coach John Thompson III said of Rivera-Smith’s performance, while noting that despite the seeds, and his team’s easy wins (by 15 and 27 points) over the Blue Jays this season, every game in the Big East is a potential hard-fought battle.
“I said it all year, most of the coaches have said it all year: Someone has to be No. 1, someone has to be No. 10. But there’s not much difference. Maybe [top-seeded Villanova] is a little different, but everyone else, there’s not much difference.”
Unlike in their previous two meetings, that was certainly the case at the Garden, especially with junior guard James Milliken leading Creighton with 17 points, while making his first six shots, including four from 3-point range.
However, all of that damage came by the early stages of the second half, as Milliken missed his final three shots while going scoreless after he tied the game on a 3-point play with 16:26 left.
A switch to a zone defense, against Thompson’s instincts, helped contain Milliken and his teammates down the stretch.
“They were getting too many easy looks against our man-to-man [defense], and they were putting us in difficult situations,” Thompson said. “So usually, conventional wisdom says when you play against a team who shoots like they do, you don’t go zone. But we did today and it worked. It was to our benefit.”
Milliken was likewise Creighton’s leading scorer in its win over DePaul, and was the only scorer in double figures, with 11 points, at halftime. He was complemented by junior center Geoffrey Groselle (eight points), who had six points on 3-for-5 shooting in the opening half. But the rest of the Blue Jays were a combined 1-for-13 in the half.
Georgetown started cold itself, missing seven straights shots at one point, while beginning just 6-for-23 (26.1 percent) from the floor, before the Hoyas made their final three shots of the half — two by Smith-Rivera — to turn a 23-23 tie into 31-25 lead (the largest of the half) by intermission.
An early 6-1 run gave the Blue Jays a 9-4 lead, but a 3-point play by senior guard Jabril Trawick (five points) and a 3-pointer from freshman guard Tre Campbell (six points) provided Georgetown’s first lead, at 10-9, with 13:48 left in the half.
A 7-2 run behind four points from senior center Joshua Smith (10 points) and three from senior forward Mikael Hopkins (seven points) put the Hoyas up 21-16 with 5:35 to play in the frame.
But 3-pointers from senior guard Rick Kreklow (eight points, game-high six assists) and Milliken highlighted a string of seven straight Blue Jay points that moved Creighton ahead, 23-21.
Freshman forward Isaac Copeland began the second half with a dunk (for his only points) to extend Georgetown’s edge to a game-high eight points, but the Blue Jays scored the next eight points — six by Milliken, including a four-point play — to tie the game, 33-33.
Five points from Smith-Rivera keyed a 9-4 run that moved Georgetown back in front, 42-37, with 12:35 remaining.
However, treys from Kreklow and senior guard Austin Chatman (11 points) bookended an 8-1 spurt that gave the Creighton — which had started the second half 10-for-15 (66.3 percent) to that point — its first lead of the second half, 47-45, with 8:46 to play.
Nearly three minutes later, Chatman scored off glass on a terrific, acrobatic drive through traffic to extend the run to 12-1, while giving Creighton its biggest lead, 51-45, with 6:01 remaining.
That lead margin was cut to four points when a Smith-Rivera 3-pointer made it 51-49 while ending Georgetown’s second streak of seven straight missed shots, a stretch that covered nearly eight minutes.
Nearby Harlem, N.Y. native, senior guard Devin Brooks (for points, game-high nine rebounds), scored on a tough drive along the left blocks, but was answered by a Smith-Rivera 3-point play which kept the Hoyas within 53-52 with 2:50 to play.
Smith scored on a layup 54 seconds later to give Georgetown its first lead in almost eight minutes and a layup by Smith-Rivera, with a minute to play, made it 56-53.
Following a Blue Jays timeout, Milliken missed a 3-pointer and then after an offensive rebound by senior center Will Artino, threw the ball away.
“[Head] coach [Greg McDermott] had told me to attack, and they opened up the gap for me, and I attacked it. I saw Austin at the last [second]. I thought he was going to flare out to the corner, so I just missed him.”
Two free throws by Smith-Rivera subsequently pushed the Hoyas’ lead to 58-53 with 18 seconds left.
Milliken missed a rushed 3-pointer from the right wing, and Chatman scored on a putback to end a Creighton scoring drought of over three minutes while cutting Georgetown’s advantage to 58-55 with 3.9 seconds to go. But Smith-Rivera was fouled seven-tenths of a second later, and made two free throws to seal the win.
While the Hoyas reached their 23rd Big East semifinal, against either third-seeded Butler or sixth-seeded Xavier on Friday night, the Blue Jays were left to wonder what might have been if not for yet another close loss.
“Obviously, it goes without saying, we’re extremely disappointed,” McDermott said after seeing his team outshoot Georgetown 44.7 percent (21-for-47) to 37.8 percent (17-for-45). “I felt like, in a lot of ways, we outplayed Georgetown tonight… since the 0-8 start, we’ve gone 5-7 in Big East play, including the tournament. Probably, we’re about eight possessions from being 10-2 or 9-3 in that stretch.
“I’m disappointed we’re not playing tomorrow because we split with Xavier, we lost two last-second games to Butler and we just lost to Villanova by four [points] the other night.”
Reflecting after his final collegiate game, Kreklow added, “I’m really proud of the guys on this team and the coaching staff… despite those kinds of [close] losses, which can really just be demoralizing… to put that behind you… it’s really tough to do, and this team was able to do that.”
Yet what Creighton couldn’t do, even after playing much better this time, is finally beat Georgetown.
XAVIER OUTLASTS BUTLER IN OVERTIME
NEW YORK — Sometimes in tournament play, it takes a big scorer or two to carry a team. Other times, relying on that approach too often, in favor of being more diverse, can get a basketball team in trouble.
The third-seeded Butler Bulldogs learned that lesson the hard way during their 67-61 overtime loss to the sixth-seeded Xavier Musketeers in the Big East Conference tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Although 22nd-ranked Butler (22-10, 12-7 Big East) had the game’s three highest scorers — senior guard Alex Barlow (who led all scorers with a career-high 22 points), junior guard Kellen Dunham (17 points) and sophomore forward Andrew Chrabascz (16 points) — no one else stepped up for the Bulldogs, who only had a combined six points from the rest of their team while Xavier (20-12, 10-9 Big East) had far better balance with five players ranging between 11 and 13 points.
Senior center Matt Stainbrook senior guard Dee Davis and reserve sophomore guard Myles Davis were the Musketeers who scored 13 points, while reserve sophomore forward Jalen Reynolds had 12 and freshman forward Trevon Bluiett added 11.
After taking a nine-point lead on Dunham’s only 3-pointer (in six attempts), with 14:14 left in regulation, the Bulldogs somehow managed to hang on to the lead despite going over nine minutes without a field goal as they leaned too heavily on their trio of scorers and no none else to get some buckets.
That would catch up with Butler though, as the Bulldogs finished just 5-for-19 from the field over the final 19-plus minutes (including overtime), while Xavier slowly chipped away at its deficit and eventually pulled ahead for good with four straight points from Reynolds in extra time.
Long before that, things looked easy for the higher seed.
Barlow made a pair of 3-pointers as Butler scored the first eight points, en route to a 12-2 lead after 4:43.
But five points from Myles Davis and four by Stainbrook keyed an 11-3 answer by the Musketeers that cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 15-13, with 11:06 left in the opening half.
Barlow’s third trey extended that edge to five points, but Xavier scored the next seven, on a 3-pointer from Dee Davis, two free throws by Stainbrook and a fast break layup from junior guard Remy Abell (five points), to give the Musketeers their first lead, at 20-18.
A layup by Barlow tied the game and made him the first player to reach double figures in scoring (with 11 points) before Dunham scored his first four points, on a couple of layups, to put Butler up, 24-20, with 5:12 to go in the half.
Dee Davis and Abell scored on layups to tied the game at 24-apeice, but for a second time, Dunham scored four points to put the Bulldogs up by that amount.
Bluiett made his first 3-point try to cut into that lead and Dee Davis made an NBA-range trey in the final seconds of the half to send Xavier into the locker room with its second lead of the game, at 30-28.
Four Bulldogs scored, including Barlow (who had five points) to key an 11-1 run at the start of the second half, which gave Butler a 39-31 cushion.
During an ensuing Musketeers timeout, the Garden scoreboard and public address announcer told the crowd that Barlow had been named the 2014-15 Big East Men’s Scholar Athlete of the Year. But after a while he nor his teammates could solve Xavier’s tough defense.
Dunham’s first 3-pointer, in four attempts, pushed the Bulldogs’ spurt to 14-3 and their lead to 42-33. But four straight points from Reynolds made it 42-37, just before Reynolds became the first Musketeer to pick up his third foul.
The game remained stuck on that score for more than three minutes until a technical foul on freshman forward Kelan Martin gave Myles Davis two free throws with 8:58 left in the frame.
Abell made the first of two free throws to cap a 5-1 run that brought Xavier to within 45-44, with 6:20 to play in the half.
Despite going 9:16 between field goals, when Dunham made a jumper to make it 47-44, with 4:58 left, Butler never relinquished the lead over that time, until 2:25 later, when a 3-pointer by Bluiett, with 2:33 remaining in the half, tied the game at 53-53.
Those were the final points of regulation as Stainbrook was stripped on the final half-court possession of the half before a desperation Barlow heave from his own side of the floor fell short.
Dee Davis started the extra session with a 3-point play, which was answered with a 3-pointer by Barlow. But another 3-point play, and then one of two free throws by Reynolds, gave the Musketeers a 60-56 lead that they wouldn’t give up.
Reynolds fouled out 25 seconds later, after a steal and aggressive drive by Barlow, who made two free throws to cut Xavier’s lead in half, at 60-58, with 2:03 left.
Bluiett made only the first of two free throws, but Stainbrook grabbed an offensive board after the second attempt, which led to a layup and by Myles Davis, to grow the Musketeers’ cushion to 63-58 with 1:04 to play.
With a chance to make it a one possession game, Chrabascz made only one of two free throws as Xavier pulled away at the free throw line in the final minute.
Knowing his team is still headed to the NCAA tournament, head coach Chris Holtmann focused on the positives of Butler’s season.
“We’ve had tremendous Big East season,” he said. “To finish 12-6 [within the Big East] and tied for second [place] is a real credit to this group. We obviously would have liked to stay here a little bit longer, but I know our guys are excited about next week.”
Xavier, which had reached the Big East semifinals in each of its two years in the Big East, will next draw second-seeded Georgetown, as underdogs, even though the Musketeers handily swept their next opponent in a 70-53 home win on Dec. 31, followed by a 66-53 win at Georgetown on Jan. 27.
Avoiding any sort of overconfidence based on those results, head coach Chris Mack chooses to ignore those results rather than read too much into them as he preps his squad for a short turnaround on Friday night, after a game that ended early Friday morning (just after midnight), ironically on the six-year anniversary of the longest Big East tournament game ever played (when Syracuse beat Connecticut in six overtimes).
“Those matchups have nothing to do with tomorrow night,” Mack said “I see an excellent team [in Georgetown]. I see a team that’s very athletic [and] really big around the basket. They have a potent scorer, one of the best in the conference in D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera… we [will] have to be at our best to win tomorrow night.”
All photos by Jon Wagner at Madison Square Garden, in New York, N.Y., on March 12, 2015