One of the benefits of having the Missouri Valley tournament here in St. Louis is that I feel like I have a role as an ambassador of my fair city for those who are here from the various Valley towns. I've helped people find their way around the Scottrade Center. I advised a couple from Illinois State on the neighborhood where all the good Italian restaurants reside, which was easy because I reside in the same neighborhood. I've given advice on the easiest way to navigate our mass transit system, which is confusing enough even for a native.
After the final buzzer of the Illinois State-Northern Iowa game, the arena had to be cleared to prepare for the evening session. It would be a quick 90 minutes between games, so my idea was I would make the quick two-block walk to Union Station to grab a bite.
As I made the trip, I noticed I was part of a massive stream of fans, all donning the colors of their respective teams but mostly in Shocker gold and Creighton blue, making the same walk I was toward Union Station. I knew then and there this was an critical error on my part, one I hadn't expected to make here in my hometown.
St. Louis' Union Station once held the title of being the busiest and largest train station in the world. The famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" photo was taken there as the newly re-elected President traveled from his home in Independence, Mo., to Washington, D.C. For almost 80 years, Union Station served as the hub for people entering and leaving the Gateway City.
With the decline of train services came the decline in Union Station. The building underwent renovations in the early 1980s to become a hotel, shopping and dining venue. St. Louisans returned in droves to the new Union Station. For 20 years it stood as an unmatched entertainment venue, and had much to do with the downtown placement of what is now the Scottrade Center, home of this tournament. It featured several large sit-down restaurants, including one famous for chicken wings and breasts most certainly not from chickens. During the Missouri Valley tournament, the annual Christmastime basketball matchup between Missouri and Illinois, or even before hockey games, Union Station buzzed with activity.
But even before the latest economic downturn hit, Union Station's decline began again. The chicken wing restaurant moved a few blocks away to be closer to the baseball stadium. Several other businesses quickly followed. Others have tried to open, only to quickly shutter due to lack of foot traffic. Today, Union Station sits almost as an empty shell, struggling to keep what business they do have, but not effectively bringing in anything new. Today, the food options are similar to your standard mall food court in size, number, and variety.
As I came to the top of the escalator leading to the food court, I saw just what I had feared. Serpentine lines, each with dozens of people, interlaced together in front of the various counters. One couldn't tell where the line for Sbarro ended and the line for Panda Express began. Basically, 2,000 people had descended on 10 food stands, each one woefully understaffed and understocked for the onslaught of Valley fans. The one sit-down establishment inside was reserved for the Missouri State alumni group, and I didn't think I would quite fit in.
I'd like to think I'm a patient man, but lines bother me to no end. I tried standing in a couple, and after not moving for five minutes in each one, I decided I had enough, left the faltering Union Station and started the walk back to the arena. A smart man would have packed a lunch and eaten in the car between sessions. My stupid tax for the day was $14.50 for two hot dogs and a drink back inside Scottrade's doors.
My foul mood over the intersession fiasco quickly lifted though, as Drake jumped out to an early and unexpected 9-0 lead over favored Creighton. The Jays, cheered on by a massive crowd occupying the entire east end of the lower section, quickly responded with three baskets from Antoine Young and a couple from newly-crowned Larry Bird Trophy (a.k.a. Missouri Valley MVP) winner Doug McDermott. Just eight minutes into the game, the score was tied at 16 each. The teams traded the lead for the rest of the half, and tied six times, as Drake's Jordan Clarke and Creighton's Gregory Echenique battled inside for their respective teams. At the half, Creighton held to a 35-34 lead.
The second half saw Creighton slowly build a lead, as Drake went on a five-minute scoring drought. Meanwhile, McDermott scored eight straight Jay points on a nice hook shot and a couple threes, and Creighton's lead slowly grew to 13 points with just 4:30 left in the game.
Drake found one last reserve of will and started to take the ball in against the Creighton defense. Kurt Alexander cut the lead to 11 with a driving layup, then Rayvonte Rice cut it to eight with a layup-and-one. Another Rice layup brought the Jays' lead down to six. Another free throw from Clarke and yet another Rice layup capped a 12-2 Drake run, and the lead was now just three points with 1:24 left. The fans rose to their feet, Creighton's easily outnumbering Drake's 10 to 1, to cheer their teams to the finish.
But fate would not be on the underdog's side this night. Jeremy Jeffers committed a terrible mental mistake by fouling Doug McDermott away from the play, and the star easily made the two free throws to push the Jays lead back to five and his personal total up to 26. Kurt Alexander could not score on the next possession, but received a reprieve when Echenique missed the front end of a one-and-one with just 47 seconds left.
Echenique would quickly atone for his mistake by blocking Ben Simons' putback attempt with 30 seconds left, and Young salted away the Bluejays' win at the free-throw line. An expected semifinal date awaited Creighton.
At 17-15, Drake's postseason hopes, an extension to the careers of Kraidon Woods and Kurt Alexander, are as much in limbo as the once-proud train depot just down the street.
CREIGHTON 68, DRAKE 61 03/02/2012
DRAKE 17-15 (9-9) -- B. Simons 5-12 0-0 11; J. Jeffers 4-12 0-0 8; R. Rice 5-13 5-5 15; J. Clarke 5-7 1-4 11; K. Alexander 4-14 6-7 14; A. Hawley 0-1 0-0 0; D. Smith 1-1 0-0 2; K. Woods 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-60 12-16 61. CREIGHTON 26-5 (14-4) -- D. McDermott 9-15 4-7 26; A. Young 6-8 4-4 16; G. Echenique 5-8 0-1 10; J. Jones 1-3 0-0 3; J. Manigat 3-6 2-2 8; A. Chatman 1-4 3-5 5; G. Gibbs 0-2 0-0 0; E. Wragge 0-4 0-0 0; A. Dingman 0-3 0-0 0; W. Artino 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 13-19 68.
Three-point goals: DRKE 1-15 (B. Simons 1-5; K. Alexander 0-3; J. Jeffers 0-4; R. Rice 0-3), CREI 5-19 (A. Young 0-1; J. Jones 1-2; E. Wragge 0-4; D. McDermott 4-6; J. Manigat 0-3; A. Chatman 0-1; A. Dingman 0-2); Rebounds: DRKE 31 (J. Clarke 11), CREI 35 (D. McDermott 10); Assists: DRKE 6 (K. Alexander 2), CREI 13 (A. Young 3); Total Fouls -- DRKE 17, CREI 14; Fouled Out: DRKE-R. Rice; CREI-G. Gibbs.