Creighton's basketball team was clutch last season in crunch time, winning 10 of 11 games that were decided by seven points or fewer.
The Bluejays' performance in close games this season brings to mind a different C-word, one that rhymes with poke. At least one Creighton player suggested that's what the Bluejays did Wednesday when they blew a five-point lead in the last 5 ½ minutes against Northern Iowa.
The 61-54 setback dropped Creighton's record to 1-4 this season in games decided by seven points or fewer. Two of the losses have been by three points, leaving the Bluejays pondering what might have been had they come up with one more stop or made one more basket.
The players say there is not one overriding factor that has contributed to their inability to close out games.
“I don't think you can point to one thing and say that's why this is happening,” center Gregory Echenique said. “And I think we still have faith that we can come through, and I think we're still a confident team.
“It's not science, and I've said it before and I'll say it again. We just have to find a way to match the intensity of the other teams.”
Creighton didn't match Northern Iowa's fire when the game was on the line Wednesday in Cedar Falls. The Bluejays led 48-43 with 5:27 to play but the Panthers scored 18 of the last 24 points, with Jake Koch getting 13.
In Creighton's previous game, the Bluejays dropped a 75-72 decision to Illinois State, again allowing a decisive spurt in the closing minutes. Creighton's other three-point loss came Jan. 19 at Wichita State when the Bluejays missed a couple of late 3-point shots in a 67-64 defeat.
Last season, in games decided by seven points or fewer, Creighton won four by one point and two by two points.
“I'm not sure if we're expecting it rather than going out and taking it like we used to do,'' forward Ethan Wragge said. “We've had a couple of bad bounces, and it's been a couple of cases where one or two plays decide things or one guy does one or two things wrong and it costs us.
“We just need to get our confidence back. I think once we get one to go, it's all going to come back to us.''
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Coach Greg McDermott and his staff have scoured the game tape to try to figure out why the Bluejays can't close out the tight ones. Creighton has won just once in a game that wasn't decided by double digits, posting a 79-72 win at Illinois State in early January.
“Close games usually come down to a couple plays here and there,'' McDermott said. “Unfortunately for us, it's been different things on different days. It's kind of like my golf game.
“One day I can hit my driver and irons but I can't putt. The next time I make every putt but I can't get a drive in. And I'm not sure what you do to fix it when you have good shooters and shoot 35 percent from the free-throw line.''
The Bluejays did that against Northern Iowa, making just 5 of 14 free throws. They also committed 18 turnovers.
It was field-goal shooting against Illinois State that did in the Blujeays. They finished the game with season-low shooting percentages of .379 from the floor and .174 from 3-point range.
The simplistic answer to the difference between Creighton's play in late-game situations this season compared to last is not who McDermott is putting on the floor in crunch time. It's who he is not.
The Bluejays lost just one key contributor from last season, but that was Antoine Young, a three-year starter at the point and one of the team's few players capable of getting his own shot in crucial situations.
Creighton also is now without Josh Jones, forced to give up basketball following a December heart issue. Over the course of his Creighton career, Jones did a lot of good things and also had his share of bad moments in crunch time but he never was afraid to try to make a play.
There have been times in tight spots this season when the Bluejays' offense has gone stagnant. It almost appears that the players on the court are looking to, or maybe hoping that, a teammate tries to make a play.
“We've talked about how we're not the best team when we play tense and tight and we're doubting ourselves,'' Wragge said. “When we're confident and we're out there playing loose and letting it fly, that's when we play a lot better.
“We have to get back to where we're hitting that extra pass and getting great shots instead of close shots.''
Although he played too loose at times, Jones did bring a swagger to the court. So did Young, although in a slightly different way.
The present players recognize the contributions those two players brought to the team but say it does no good to lament about no longer having them.
“The nature of it is that we have to have other guys step in,'' Echenique said. “It's going to happen next year when I'm gone. They'll need other guys to step in.
“Josh always brought a different energy when he came off the bench, and Antoine made a lot of plays for us. Now, we just need different guys to step up. Some guys have done a decent job of doing that, but we could still use more.''
Creighton's frustration level is at a season high, having lost three in a row. The Bluejays will try to avoid their first four-game skid since 1999-2000 Saturday at Evansville.
To put it in perspective, Evansville has had 18 skids of four games or longer in that same span.
“This is a tough stretch,'' Echenique said. “We're not used to losing, and we're held to a different standard. When something like this happens, it adds pressure but we know we can still accomplish everything we set out to do if we can get this turned around.''
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