Jim Flanery waited a long time for this moment. In his 10th season at Creighton and after a bunch of close misses, he finally gets a chance to coach in the NCAA tournament.
''We're thrilled to be here,'' Flanery said after the Bluejays beat Drake 53-38 in the Missouri Valley Conference women's tourney final on Sunday. ''As hard as you think it is, it's harder to do, to go to the NCAA tournament.
''So, I'm really proud of this group.''
Carli Tritz, named the tournament's most outstanding player, scored eight of her 19 points in Creighton's 14-2 finishing run. Sarah Nelson and McKenzie Fujan added 12 points apiece as the fourth-seeded Bluejays (20-12) prevailed in a matchup of underdogs and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 2002 and fourth overall.
Seventh-seeded Drake won two regular-season meetings and knocked off No. 2 Illinois State and No. 3 Wichita State en route to the finals. Creighton upset top seed Missouri State in the semifinals and took control in the second half in the tourney final.
''We know each other almost too well,'' Tritz said. ''I think it was an advantage because we had lost twice and we were the team with nothing to lose.''
Creighton also won the men's conference tournament last week in St. Louis.
Rachael Hackbarth had 15 points and 14 rebounds for Drake (18-15), the 25th double double of the season for the league's player of the year. Hackbarth totaled 65 points and 45 rebounds in four tournament games.
''She's a big reason we did what we did,'' coach Amy Stephens said. ''She's a terrific young woman who deserved every accolade.''
Morgan Reid added 10 points for the losers. But Kyndal Clark, Drake's second-leading scorer with a 10-point average, was held to two points on 1-for-7 shooting
''Kyndal was operating on fumes,'' Stephens said. ''You have to have three or four people in double figures and we couldn't get that.''
Creighton played in the final for the fourth time in six years and won for the first time. Flanery had been the Valley's winningest coach without an NCAA bid, and is now 189-128.
''We've come a long way and that's a tribute to leadership and kids keeping their heads up when things don't go perfectly,'' Flanery said.
Creighton scored 11 straight points before Hackbarth went the length of the court for a layup with 1:03 to go, and Tritz was 6 for 6 from the line in the final 1:10. Flanery thought the Bluejays' depth wore down Drake, which has a short bench with all starters going at least 32 minutes.
All four of Drake's opponents pressed on defense.
''They had to play all the way to the end of all three of their games,'' Flanery said. ''I didn't necessarily think we would wear them down to the point where it would be a huge factor but I felt like it would be enough of a factor.''
Fujan, who averages just 4.5 points, matched her career high. She was 3 for 5 from 3-point range after entering the game with just nine 3-pointers on the season and one in the last 12 games.
''McKenzie played so great in the second half right away,'' Tritz said. ''That gave us a burst, and we never looked back after that.''