SAN DIEGO — As Creighton traded haymakers with San Diego State in the final minutes of Wednesday night's back-and-forth matchup, sophomore forward Doug McDermott's stoic expression hardly ever betrayed his emotions.
Only after the Bluejays rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit and finished off a hard-fought 85-83 win did McDermott finally reveal how much this victory meant to him.
He chest-bumped a teammate once the final horn sounded. He pumped his fist toward a throng of Creighton fans above the tunnel as he ran off the court. And just before disappearing into the visiting locker room, he embraced his father Greg McDermott, who was waiting outside the door to congratulate his son on a masterful 25-point, 12-rebound performance in the first signature win of the Bluejays' season.
"This is huge for our team," the younger McDermott said. "It was a big-time atmosphere, a crazy student section and they were a really good team. We didn't play well on the road last season, so it was really important for our confidence to win a game like this."
If the lack of quality competition raised questions about the validity of Creighton's undefeated record entering Wednesday's game, then the Bluejays (6-0) took a step toward proving themselves against San Diego State.
Whereas Creighton's first five victims have a combined 14-19 record, San Diego State began Wednesday night with a gaudy 7-1 record and impressive wins over Arizona, USC, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara. Furthermore, the Aztecs had only lost one time at raucous Viejas Arena since the start of last season.
"San Diego State is going to win a lot of games before the year's out because their guard play is so good and they can beat you in so many ways," Greg McDermott said. "If you had told me we were going to be down 17, I'd have told you you're crazy to think we can come back and beat this team on their floor. So it's a huge win for our program and it comes at a good time."
To secure its first marquee win of the season, Creighton had to not only overcome the Aztecs' vaunted backcourt but also their sellout crowd of 12,414, which did everything in its power to help the home team emerge with a victory. Costume-clad students arrived early and stood and roared from tipoff until the final buzzer. One held a sign with "McDoormat" written on it. Another waved one directed at Creighton freshman Avery Dingman with a phone number on it alongside the message, "Call me. Maddie from Cheesecake Factory."
The emotion of the crowd fueled San Diego State's torrid 31-14 start, but Creighton rallied to pull within four by halftime, to tie the game for the first time at 46 and to take its first lead on an Antoine Young 3-pointer with just over six minutes to go. What sparked the comeback for the Bluejays was a combination of too many quick jump shots from the Aztecs and efficient offense from McDermott and his supporting cast.
Even though San Diego State switched every screen for McDermott and double-teamed him whenever he got the ball in the post, he still managed to sink 9 of 17 shots on everything from pick-and-pops, to put-backs, to precise set plays. The attention the Aztecs paid to McDermott also freed up his teammates to make key plays.
Sharpshooter Ethan Wragge was the primary benefactor, scoring 19 points, sinking four threes and making the game-winning layup to put Creighton up 84-81 with 16.2 seconds left. Guard Antoine Young also chipped in 18 points and Jahenns Manigat made the game-sealing play, corralling his own missed free throw with 2.3 seconds left and the Bluejays already leading by two.
"They made the plays down the stretch when they had to," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "They really have a nice blend of older veterans and young guys that have experience. That is what makes a good basketball team. And unfortunately for us, they came into our building and played a little better than we did. That doesn't happen often, but it happened tonight."
A year ago, a youthful Creighton team struggled through an up-and-down 14-loss regular season before salvaging things with a run to the CBI finals against Oregon. Now the Bluejays have taken another step forward and appear deserving of a Top 25 ranking and the role of Missouri Valley Conference favorite.
They have star in McDermott who dominates the game without dominating the ball. They have a big man in Gregory Echenique who played poorly on Wednesday but is a capable back-to-the basket scorer. They have a point guard in Antoine Young who has the speed and strength to get to the rim and finish. They have an array of shooters such as Grant Gibbs and Wragge who cannot be left open behind the arc.
And perhaps most importantly, they now have the belief in themselves that they can rally from a double-digit deficit and beat a good team on the road.
"I think last year we would have all just hung our heads and given in to what they were doing to us," Doug McDermott said. "Tonight we just didn't give up. This feels so good right now. From where we were last year to where we're at today, it's just a night and day difference."
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