ST. LOUIS -- Moments after the final horn -- after the most physical, emotional game it’s played during this magnificent season -- the Creighton basketball team put on a different type of performance for the 5,000-or-so fans who remained at the Scottrade Center Sunday.
Perched atop a podium at center court, the Bluejays cleared their throats.
They took deep breaths.
And then they sang.
“Weeeee aaarrreee the chaaaammmpions, WEEEE ARRREEE the CHAAAMMM-pions!” Doug McDermott & Co. crooned, laughing as they veered off-key to the famous Queen song. A few minutes later they watched themselves on the “One Shining Moment” video that played on the JumboTron.
Then then came the snippage of both of the arena’s nets.
“This is what we work for,” McDermott said. “This is what we all dream of, to play on national television for a championship.”
Sunday’s 83-79 overtime win over Illinois State was for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament trophy -- not the NCAA title. But there were times during the celebration when it almost felt that way.
A lot of schools, especially ones from power conferences, don’t get all that jazzed about league tournaments. Most of them would prefer Selection Sunday to be the day after the regular season. North Carolina coach Roy Williams once said the events were “nothing more than a cocktail party for the alumni.”
It certainly didn’t feel that way inside the Scottrade Center, where it wasn’t hard to sense a genuine appreciation and satisfaction over what had just been accomplished.
Before they looked ahead to the future, the Bluejays wanted to make sure to reflect on their past, to remember what got them to this moment in the first place. The road, they said, definitely hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve had a target on our backs [all season],” said head coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father. “These guys have handled it really well. They haven’t let it become a distraction.”
It’s indeed rare for a mid-major school to hover in the national spotlight as long as Creighton. The Bluejays garnered national headlines by winning at San Diego State on Nov. 30. They’ve been one of the most scrutinized non-BCS teams ever since.
Having a player such as McDermott -- a first-team All-American by ESPN.com -- only increased the attention. McDermott’s 22.9-point scoring average ranks third in the nation.
The Bluejays got off to a 21-2 start but then dropped three straight games to Northern Iowa, Evansville and Wichita State. The losses kept McDermott’s squad from taking the Missouri Valley Conference title, but that hardly deterred the Bluejays, who will take a seven-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament.
“We really didn’t change much,” Doug McDermott said. “We never lost our confidence.”
That was obvious Sunday.
One day after upsetting No. 1 seed Wichita State, Illinois State tried its best to out-tough Creighton Sunday. The Redbirds, who finished just 9-9 in league play, led by six points midway through the second half and made two baskets in the final 16 seconds to force overtime.
But the Bluejays scored the first five points of the extra period and never looked back.
“They were rolling,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said of the Redbirds. “They had that ‘not-holding-anything-back-Cinderella-type deal’ going. They were playing with a ton of confidence.”
All of it came to a crushing halt after Creighton pulled away. While the Bluejays celebrated on the court, Illinois State was despondent in its locker room after coming within minutes of earning an NCAA tournament berth.
“It cuts so deep,” Redbirds coach Tim Jankovich said. “To fall this short of an NCAA bid is painful beyond words.”
Meanwhile, Creighton couldn’t have been happier to be celebrating again after making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. The past two years, the Bluejays weren’t even invited to the NIT. The players said the credit should go to Greg McDermott, who is in his second season since taking over for Dana Altman, who left for Oregon in 2010.
“It’s very rewarding,” point guard Antoine Young said. “It’s good to have Creighton basketball back where it needs to be, back where it should be.”
The question now is how much further the Bluejays can go.
Creighton is not extremely quick and athletic, so their defense is a concern against faster teams adept at beating a defender off the dribble and attacking the basket. But the Bluejays do have players in the paint that have both size and skill. Greg Echinique (6-9, 270) began his career at Rutgers. The 6-foot-7 Doug McDermott is aggressive in the paint and 6-11 forward Will Artino comes off the bench.
“Not every mid-major has what we have on the front line,” Greg McDermott said.
And most aren’t as crisp and efficient offensively as the Bluejays.
Creighton shoots a national-best 51 percent from the field. The Bluejays’ 79.9 points per game ranks sixth in the nation, and their average of 18 assists is third.
This is an extremely patient, unselfish team that doesn’t take bad shots. That can get you a long way in the NCAA tournament -- especially if the matchups are favorable. Just as Butler and VCU, both of which made the Final Four last season.
Creighton is every bit as good as both of those teams. And the Bluejays know it.
“We’ll be ready,” Doug McDermott said. “We’re not scared of anybody.”