Coming ‘so close’ wasn’t enough for Illinois St.
ST. LOUIS — As Creighton’s celebration continued on the court in front of him, Nic Moore walked toward his locker room with a promise. The Illinois State freshman guard had witnessed another near miss for the Redbirds in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game. He guaranteed there will be a time soon when his program savors a victory ceremony of its own.
On Sunday afternoon, the opportunity was available. Fourth-seeded Illinois State met each rally from No. 25 Creighton, until the second-seeded Bluejays built a nine-point lead in overtime on their way to an 83-79 victory at the Scottrade Center. The final horn sounded, and Redbirds junior guard Anthony Cousin and junior forward Jackie Carmichael crouched near their bench as Creighton fans rushed the court to mark their program’s first MVC tournament title since 2007. Afterward, Moore wanted anyone close by in a corridor to know that Illinois State’s loss represented a beginning, not an end.
“We will be back,” he yelled to no one in particular as he pulled his red jersey over his head. “You can believe that!”
Illinois State fell in the MVC tournament final for the third time in five years, but Moore and others in the Redbirds locker room have reason to anticipate the future. They looked more than capable of topping the preseason MVC championship pick, a day after beating No. 15 Wichita State in a semifinal that stood as this event’s most surprising upset. As Illinois State learned Sunday, the difference in March between becoming Cinderella and being sent home with questions is small, and the Redbirds will have motivation to close the difference next season when trying to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1998.
They have reason to do so because no one is leaving. Their roster consists of seven juniors, four freshmen and two sophomores. This season, their youth produced play that was both confident (little seemed to faze them when facing consecutive ranked opponents this weekend for the first time all season) and inconsistent (they lost five of their first nine MVC games). In many ways, they are still forming an identity.
“We definitely take away that we can play with some of the elite teams,” said Carmichael, who finished with 17 points. “We played two ranked teams back-to-back. I think it just showed what lies ahead for this team into postseason and maybe going into next year. We have a lot to work for. It definitely changes our mind-set a little bit. We knew we could do it, but this solidifies that.”
Still, future goals do not ease the pain of what was lost for Illinois State on Sunday. For almost 2 1/2 hours, the Redbirds made bubble teams such as Texas, Xavier and Northwestern nervous that a squad that finished its MVC schedule at 9-9 would snatch an NCAA tournament berth. Illinois State gained confidence with each passing minute, not intimidated by Creighton sophomore forward Doug McDermott’s sharp shooting from the outside. In the Redbirds’ huddle before overtime, sophomore forward Jon Ekey recalled junior guard Bryant Allen yelling, “It is our time!” And before the Bluejays began overtime on a 13-4 run, it appeared as if it was.
Instead, the Redbirds are likely bound for the NIT for the fourth time in five years under coach Tim Jankovich. The familiar destination is a chance to grow, yes, but the assignment must feel like a disappointment after how close they came to reaching the sport’s largest stage Sunday. Illinois State, led by Moore’s 20 points, played with poise despite entering the title matchup with more pressure facing a scenario in which they had to win to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. Meanwhile, Creighton began its first MVC tournament championship game since 2007 with its place in March Madness secured.
“It hurts, because we had been working this whole season on getting better and climbing and trying to become one of the best teams in the Valley,” said Ekey, who finished with 13 points. “Just to get this close and take it to overtime and play two ranked teams back to back — we knew we could do it. Then it slips away just like that. It hurts a lot.”
The hurt will linger for a while, but the feeling can be used as motivation in the weight room and on the practice court during the offseason in Normal, Ill. There is opportunity present in surpassing expectations but failing to reach the top, as the Redbirds did this weekend. An unfulfilled goal can create hunger and a desire to succeed in a way that was not achieved before.
Jankovich has led Illinois State to the MVC tournament championship game on three occasions and lost each time, including a three-point overtime defeat to Northern Iowa in 2009. As a result, when Moore yells, “We will be back!” it is not hard to believe him. And it is not hard to picture the Redbirds cutting down the nets at some point in the future after gaining perspective only maturity provides.
Still, the sights and sounds of Creighton’s victory will be remembered as what could have been for a young Illinois State team that thought it should have experienced something similar. Chants of “C-U!” echoed from a large Bluejays cheering section. One young man dressed in blue held a white poster-board sign behind a goal that read, “MVC CHAMPS.”
Before Sunday, few expected the Redbirds to envision such a possibility for themselves. But they did. And that makes the pain of their close call all the more reason to stay motivated.