Production trumps projections as far as the Creighton women’s basketball team is concerned.
The Bluejays open Missouri Valley tournament play Friday night projected as an at-large qualifier to the NCAA tournament should they not claim the conference’s automatic berth.
It’s nice to be in the discussion for an at-large spot in the tournament, junior forward Sarah Nelson said, but the Bluejays would prefer not leaving anything to chance.
“We have to play like winning it out is the only way we can get into the NCAA tournament,” Nelson said. “I don’t know when the last time we were considered for an at-large. I know it hasn’t been since I’ve been here.”
Nelson was 3 years old in 1994, the only time Creighton received an at-large bid to the tournament. Star freshman Marissa Janning hadn’t yet turned 1, while redshirt freshman Brianna Rollerson hadn’t been born.
No Valley team has received an at-large berth since 2002, and few, if any, were even in the discussion for one. Creighton’s achievements this season — the Bluejays are 23-6, claimed a share of the regular-season championship and have an NCAA RPI ranking of 31 — at least have it in the conversation.
Coach Jim Flanery doesn’t believe the Bluejays’ situation drastically alters their approach to the Valley tournament. Perhaps the biggest difference will be that Flanery will be hoping for no upsets.
“Usually, you’re hoping for upsets in the other games so that we might get an easier draw,” Flanery said. “This year, that might hurt us because we need every RPI point that we can get.
“We want the opportunity for better wins on the way to the championship.”
Flanery’s team will open tournament play against 10th-seeded Southern Illinois, which shocked Evansville 83-74 in overtime in Thursday’s play-in round. The Salukis are 5-25 and hadn’t won since Jan. 5.
Creighton has won the last 11 meetings with Southern Illinois, including a 61-42 win last Saturday. The win locked up a share of the regular season title for the first time since 2003. Creighton and Wichita State tied for the title by going 15-3 in league play, but the Shockers got the tournament’s top seed because of the Valley’s points-system tiebreaker in women’s basketball.
The men use nonconference strength of schedule to break head-to-head ties rather than the complicated points system. If the women used the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker, Creighton would have been the top seed.
“I think we have a chip on our shoulder that we didn’t get that No. 1 seed,” Nelson said. “That’s going to be some motivation for us, too.”
The Bluejays have won the tournament twice, claiming titles in 2002 and 2012. Last season’s championship got Creighton over the hump after the Bluejays came tantalizingly close to winning in 2007, 2009 and 2010. They lost the three title games by a combined four points.
Creighton’s consolation prize each of those seasons was a trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Flanery knows this season’s team probably has a little bigger margin for error, but he doesn’t want to test it.
“I don’t think we have to win it, but I sure want to because I know I’d feel a lot better,” he said. “I hope our players relax and enjoy this because that’s going to give us a chance to be successful.”
Notes: Creighton leads the nation in 3-point baskets per game (9.4). The Bluejays’ 272 3-pointers this season broke the school record of 260 set during the 2003-04 season. ... Nelson needs 18 points to become the 25th Creighton player to score 1,000 career points. ... Creighton is 22-16 in Valley tournament play.
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