"Come the war, come the avarice/ Come the war, come hell/ This is why, why we fight, why we lie awake/ And this is why, this is why we fight." -- The Decemberists, "This is Why We Fight"
On a chilly December afternoon in Philadelphia, the St. Joseph's Hawks hosted their Jesuit brethren from Omaha, the Creighton Blue Jays. Creighton brought a few notable things east with it -- a 7-0 record, a No. 17 national ranking and four Red Line Upsets, to name a few. More importantly, it brought a first-team all-conference player, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and the fifth-leading scorer in the country -- all wrapped up in the 6-foot-7 frame of sophomore forward Doug McDermott.
Through Creighton's first seven contests this season, McDermott showed no flaws in his game, combining the post presence one would expect from an all-conference center (9.0 rpg, 64.2 percent shooting on 2-point attempts) with outside efficiency any guard would envy (an impressive 57.7 percent 3-point shooting with 2.1 3s made per game).
The Hawks, who haven't had a player of McDermott's caliber since the annus mirabilis of 2003-04, are rising after back-to-back 11-win seasons and brought a 6-3 record into the game with three Red Line Upsets of their own. Although lacking a superstar, St. Joe's boasts a high-scoring backcourt of junior Carl "Tay" Jones (18.3 ppg) and sophomore Langston Galloway (16.0 ppg) along with a frontcourt led by sophomore C.J. Aiken, the nation's leader in blocked shots (5.0 bpg).
The game started predictably, with McDermott scoring ten points in the first 7:30, staking Creighton to a 15-7 lead and looking like the visitors might run St. Joe's out of its own gym. But as McDermott goes, so go the Blue Jays, and over the next seven minutes, the Hawks held McDermott scoreless (he also had a 3-minute rest during this stretch) and went on a 21-5 run. A banked 3-pointer by McDermott ended the run with 5:34 to go in the half and cut the Hawks' lead to 28-23.
The rest of the half played out evenly, with the Hawks taking a 35-30 lead into the break before a raucous crowd still celebrating a thunderous dunk from Ronald Roberts on a 3-on-2 fast break late in the first half -- one of the best I've ever seen in person in a college game.
The second half started out spirited but ragged, punctuated by a four-minute scoreless stretch in the early going. Notably -- and inexplicably -- McDermott did not attempt a shot in the second half until more than ten minutes had elapsed. The Blue Jays pulled even at 39 with 13:40 remaining, but a 12-2 Hawks run over the next three minutes quickly quieted the comeback hopes. McDermott's first basket of the half cut the Hawks' lead to five, but Jones, as he did all afternoon, drove right past the Creighton defense for a layup.
The Hawks never trailed in the second half, with Jones leading the way with 29 points. An alley-oop from Galloway to Aiken with 1:47 to go stretched the Hawks lead to 12. After a parade of free throws and one more exclamation point dunk from Galloway with nine seconds remaining, the Hawks prevailed 80-71, and the student section, starved for a signature home win for so long, stormed the court. My frequent hoops compatriot, Seamus, and I debated the legitimacy of rushing the court for a December win over a No. 17-ranked team. My girlfriend Amy, a proud Hawk grad, thought we were being curmudgeons. As usual, she was probably right.
McDermott led the Blue Jays with 26 points and 10 rebounds but was largely ineffective for the middle 20 minutes of the game, barely touching the ball for long stretches. (Seamus and I wondered why Creighton's coach, McDermott's father, didn't seem to have a play to get his best player the ball. That feels like something a coach should have in his arsenal.) Part of this is a credit to the Hawks' defense, which switched between zone and man-to-man and seemed to confuse Creighton for much of the game. When the Hawks were in man, sophomore Halil Kanacevic drew much of the McDermott duty, especially after Aiken drew his second foul midway through the first half, and acquitted himself admirably. He also chipped in 12 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end. Rebounding played a huge role in the win, with the Hawks outrebounding the Blue Jays 37-24, including a 12-4 edge on the offensive glass.
At 7-3 with a combination of speedy guards and a strong rebounding and shot-blocking frontline, St. Joe's appears to be a legitimate contender for a top-four spot in the Atlantic 10. Creighton, despite its struggles in this game, has one transcendent talent and is a clear threat to win the Valley. It was a great inter-regional basketball game before a packed house of students, alumni and basketball junkies. Sitting in Larry's Steaks (a St. Joe's institution) postgame as my girlfriend relived college nights she foggily remembered, I thought about the game and what it means to schools like Creighton and St. Joe's, mid-majors without football teams, city schools playing the city game.
Anyone who cares about college hoops has to hate what happened above the red line this week, with the Big East adding Houston, SMU and Central Florida to the league in all sports. In doing so, the league largely destroyed what was left of its original mission -- bringing schools in the great cities of the Northeast together to warm chilly winter days and nights with serious basketball. Over the past 20 years, the Big East has drifted away from that mission in pursuit of football money, and though some of those moves -- adding big-city schools with strong hoops traditions from the Rust Belt like Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and Louisville -- have enhanced it, this past week sounded the death knell for what the Big East once was.
That's why leagues like the Atlantic 10 matter. That is the league that continues the great hoops tradition of the Northeast and the Rust Belt. (I have much respect for Creighton and the Valley, too -- with its own tradition and own wonderful place in our game. I'd love to spend some time there getting to know it better someday.) At small Catholic colleges like St. Joe's, Xavier, Dayton, St. Bonaventure and LaSalle, our game is the eighth sacrament. At the state-supported schools like URI, UMass and Temple, it's our game that gives those schools their own place in the athletic firmament.
On a chilly Saturday, two weeks before Christmas, with my favorite Hawk and a friend with whom I've spent two decades watching basketball, with generations of crimson-clad Hawks in the stands, with a new generation of students rushing the court, believing that this is the year they will win, in a packed cheesesteak joint full of fellow-travelers that love our game, it sure as hell feels like something worth fighting for. Come the avarice, come hell, this is why we fight.
at SAINT JOSEPH'S 80, CREIGHTON 71 12/10/2011
CREIGHTON 7-1 (0-0) -- D. McDermott 10-16 1-2 26; G. Gibbs 3-6 2-3 8; A. Young 5-13 3-4 15; J. Manigat 2-5 0-0 6; G. Echenique 5-10 0-0 10; E. Wragge 0-3 0-0 0; J. Jones 1-4 0-0 3; A. Chatman 0-1 0-0 0; A. Dingman 1-2 0-0 3; W. Artino 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-61 6-9 71. SAINT JOSEPH'S 7-3 (0-0) -- C. Jones 9-17 10-11 29; L. Galloway 5-8 2-3 12; H. Kanacevic 3-10 0-1 6; R. Roberts 5-8 2-6 12; C. Aiken 4-6 2-4 11; D. Quarles 1-4 0-0 2; P. Ndao 0-4 0-0 0; C. Wilson 2-2 3-4 8. Totals 29-59 19-29 80.
Three-point goals: CREI 11-21 (G. Gibbs 0-1; A. Young 2-3; J. Jones 1-1; E. Wragge 0-3; D. McDermott 5-7; J. Manigat 2-4; A. Dingman 1-2), SJU 3-10 (C. Jones 1-1; H. Kanacevic 0-1; C. Aiken 1-2; L. Galloway 0-1; D. Quarles 0-1; P. Ndao 0-3; C. Wilson 1-1); Rebounds: CREI 24 (D. McDermott 10), SJU 37 (H. Kanacevic 12); Assists: CREI 15 (G. Gibbs 5), SJU 14 (C. Jones 5); Total Fouls -- CREI 26, SJU 13; Fouled Out: CREI-None; SJU-None.