Sarah Nelson needed only to look up to the rafters of D.J. Sokol Arena to sum up the challenge that the Creighton women’s basketball team faces this week.
“Look at the banners,” Nelson said. “We haven’t won the regular season since 2003. That’s 10 years ago, and if we can pull this off, it would definitely be exciting for our program.”
The Bluejays have won two regular-season championships in the first 20 seasons of Missouri Valley competition. They were outright champions in 2001-02 under Connie Yori, and shared the title in 2002-03, Jim Flanery’s first season as head coach.
Creighton has a chance to again celebrate a title this week as it closes the regular season with home games against Evansville on Thursday and Southern Illinois on Saturday. Win both games, and the Bluejays would be assured of no less than a share of the Valley title.
Wichita State, which is 14-3 in league play, closes the regular season with a Saturday game at Missouri State. The Lady Bears are eighth in the Valley, while Creighton’s final two games will come against the sixth-place Purple Aces and the last-place Salukis.
Creighton posted a 70-63 victory at Evansville when the teams met in early January but trailed 18-2 after the game’s first six minutes. The Bluejays had opened conference play with an 81-60 win at Southern Illinois.
In spite of those two wins, Flanery is wary of the closing assignments for his team.
“Evansville and Southern have nothing to lose,” he said. “No one expects them to come to Creighton and win. Our players are going to have to be prepared for that.
“We struggled like heck to win over at Evansville. We have to look at the prize, but we have to concentrate and prepare. You can think about winning a championship, but that is not what’s going to win us a game on Thursday and on Saturday. That’s only going to happen if we’re serious about our preparation.”
Creighton’s last game might help Flanery get that point across to his players. The Bluejays squeezed out a 67-66 victory over a Drake team they had riddled for 98 points in a 27-point win a month ago.
“We definitely can’t look past either of these teams,” Nelson said.
Creighton also wants to keep building momentum for the conference tournament, which will be played March 14-17 at St. Charles, Mo., while enhancing a résumé that could put the Bluejays in position for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament should they not claim the conference’s automatic bid.
Most of the players on this season’s team were still in diapers when Creighton received its only other at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament in 1994. The at-large avenue has been closed to the Bluejays — as well as the rest of the conference — for the past decade.
The Bluejays begin the final week of the regular season with an NCAA RPI ranking of 26. ESPN.com has Creighton pegged as an at-large qualifier in its latest NCAA tournament projections.
The Bluejays know there is other business to take care of first. They watched the Creighton men’s team cut down nets Saturday after beating Wichita State to win the regular-season title. The women want their chance.
“We have a good mindset right now, that we’re going to do whatever it takes,” Creighton guard McKenzie Fujan said. “The one thing we talk about is getting a ring. We won the conference tournament last year, but you don’t get rings for doing that.
“We want to win a ring.”
»NOTES: Fujan has made her last 22 free throws dating to Feb. 1. The last Creighton player with a streak that long was Sam Schuett en route to setting the school record with 40 consecutive made free throws. … Carli Tritz and Nelson lead the Bluejays with 99 and 96 assists. The Bluejays haven’t had two players register 100 assists in the same season since Becky Flynn and Tracy Landuyt in 1993-94. Nelson also is trying to become the first non-guard with 100 assists since Flynn had 153 that season. … Creighton leads the series against Evansville 30-11 and is 14-4 in games played in Omaha.
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