It's the part of the story when you realize the pages in your left hand far outnumber the pages in your right hand, when the narrative is coming into clear focus and you understand just how this thing is probably going to wrap up.
There are plenty of teams still with much more for which to play, the thread of their story continues to be woven into the tapestry of the season. However, there is a small yet growing collection starting to prepare themselves. They're waiting for Fate's shears to cut the string, waiting for the loss.
With this comes what people refer to as "Checking Out" or "Mailing It In" or any number of sportzwriting clichés for resigning oneself to their destiny. Effort can overcome fate, or at least delay it. But when the inevitable comes, it is preceded a lack of effort, for they have determined effort to be a precious commodity, and cannot be wasted on a futile endeavor.
I had the same thoughts as I watched Creighton and Southern Illinois warm up on the floor of SIU Arena.
Does the world, or at least our corner of a corner of it, need another 400 words on how good Creighton is, or how bad Southern Illinois is?
We've had at least three articles on the latter I can remember, one written by yours truly. The Salukis are just not good this year, and it may end up being historically bad. SIU has not had a 20-loss season since 1980-81. They came into this game with Creighton with 18 losses. With the Bluejays looming, plus two road games left on the schedule, plus the loss which will come, most likely in St. Louis, 20 is inevitable.
But if the Salukis knew it, they didn't show it right after tip-off. Freshman Dantiel Daniels, forced into a starting role due to simple lack of other post talent on SIU's roster, made a relatively easy layup to put the home team up first.
Then came the matchup I had been most intrigued to see: SIU's Mamadou Seck, by far their most talented player, squaring up against Creighton's All-Everything star Doug McDermott. Despite being criticized as soft in recent games, Seck owned up to his assignment, keeping McDermott quiet in the first few minutes of the game. Even Creighton's attempts to free McDermott of Seck using a ball screen to create a switch and mismatch against one of SIU's smaller defenders had no impact.
With the ball, Seck was able to force McDermott into a hand-check foul, questionable though it may have been, which forced Greg McDermott to bench his son for three minutes. SIU used this to their advantage and cut into the Creighton lead.
When McDermott returned, Seck continued to go after the Jays' star. The two went into a back-and-forth shoving match, initiated mostly by Seck, during an inbound play. While no fouls were called, the mood had been set. Just moments later, the ball-handling McDermott lost his usual cool and cleared the defending Seck away with his free arm. The referee called the player control foul, McDermott's second of the game. With 10:30 left in the half, McDermott quickly was replaced, and Creighton had to make do without him for the remainder.
Again, the Salukis capitalized, with a sustained effort and fight I had not yet seen from this team this season. Cranking the defensive pressure and forcing six Creighton turnovers, the Salukis scored to move the game into a tie three times, and even held a brief 25-24 lead over their Missouri Valley rivals. The Salukis had not checked out yet, their effort still in good supply.
But then, just as soon as it had come, the effort was gone. Creighton's offense responded and soon pure and simple math took over in the form of field-goal percentage.
Creighton made their last seven shots of the first half, three of them superhoops. They had made 15 of their 20 shots in the half, good for 75 percent and good enough to send the Jays into the locker room with a nine-point halftime lead.
And again for the Salukis, the breakdown reached historic levels. Creighton continued their extraordinary shooting display in the second half as their lead slowly grew into double figures. With the lead growing, and shots falling, the Saluki effort continued its waning. Six steals in the first half gave way to only two in the second. Soon the Saluki effort, at least on the defensive end, was nonexistent. Southern continued to make shots in a desperate attempt to keep up, but Creighton would just not miss.
When the final horn sounded and the numbers tallied, Creighton had made 31 of their 40 field goal attempts, or 77.5 percent for the game. It now stands as the best single-game shooting effort in the history of the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Bluejays had made three more shots, it would have been an NCAA Division I record as well. As it stands, it still ranks in the top 20.
We've reached that time; when dreams begin to disappear into the same mist they materialized from, and we are left only to fix our stare upon the reality before us. While no fate is ever secure, Creighton will most likely continue their story beyond the first weekend of March, and Southern Illinois will wait for the inevitable during that same weekend.
CREIGHTON 88, at SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 69 02/14/2012
CREIGHTON 22-5 (12-4) -- T. Zeigler 5-9 0-4 11; J. Manigat 6-8 0-0 17; G. Echenique 4-4 7-9 15; G. Gibbs 1-1 1-2 3; A. Young 6-9 3-4 15; D. McDermott 7-7 3-5 18; E. Wragge 5-6 0-0 15; A. Chatman 0-1 0-0 0; J. Jones 2-3 0-0 5; W. Artino 0-1 0-0 0; A. Dingman 0-0 0-0 0; M. Dorwart 0-0 0-0 0; R. Ferrarini 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-40 14-20 88. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 8-19 (5-11) -- D. Daniels 6-9 0-4 12; M. Seck 8-14 0-0 16; J. Early 3-7 1-2 7; K. Goff 1-3 0-2 3; T. Lindsay 5-7 0-0 13; T. Setty 2-6 0-0 5; K. Brown-Surles 2-6 0-0 5; J. Bocot 3-5 1-2 8; H. Whitt 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 30-60 2-10 69.
Three-point goals: CREI 12-14 (J. Jones 1-1; E. Wragge 5-6; D. McDermott 1-1; J. Manigat 5-6), SIU 7-18 (J. Bocot 1-2; K. Brown-Surles 1-5; K. Goff 1-2; T. Lindsay 3-5; T. Setty 1-3; H. Whitt 0-1); Rebounds: CREI 29 (G. Echenique 9), SIU 16 (D. Daniels 6); Assists: CREI 21 (A. Young 8), SIU 15 (J. Early 4); Total Fouls -- CREI 14, SIU 16; Fouled Out: CREI-None; SIU-None.