There are nights during the long narrative of college basketball’s annual journey that you immediately know — you just know — it’s a signature moment of the season. This was one of them.
There was magic in the very score itself Wednesday in Nebraska.
Marquette 106, Creighton 104, overtime.
There was magic in the replays.
See Creighton, ahead by three points with 0.8 seconds left — and with the ball — throw a long inbounds pass. All someone has to do is touch it. Anyone. Game over. A team couldn’t have its hands any more tightly grasped around a victory. But nobody does. Ball goes back to where it was, Marquette still with one slim chance left.
See Sam Hauser, with those 0.8 seconds still up there, catch a pass amid a couple of Creighton defenders nearly nose-to-nose with him, and bury a 25-footer to tie the game. It was as if he had jumped up from the middle of the Bluejays huddle to take the shot.
See Markus Howard score from . . . here, there, everywhere.
There was magic in the numbers.
Howard’s 53 points, more than anyone had ever scored in a Big East game. Thirteen Division I teams Wednesday night played games without a player scoring more than 14 points. Howard had that many in overtime. Never mind his nine turnovers.
Together, they put up 61 3-pointers, and made 33 of them — or 54 percent.
The two teams combined for 210 points. There was one lead change.
Creighton shot 50.8 percent overall, 51.5 percent from the 3-point arc, 80.8 percent from the free throw line, committed only nine turnovers. “You look at the stat sheet,” McDermott said Thursday, “and you wonder how we lost.” The last time the Bluejays hit 100 points in a game and were defeated was 1977. They had won 36 in a row since then.
There was magic in the words afterward.
From the winning coach. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be part of a game like this again,” said Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski.
From the unstoppable shooter: “I’m more proud of the win, and the way we won,” said Howard.
Relive Markus Howard’s impressive performance, breaking the Big East single game scoring record with 53 points against Creighton! 💪pic.twitter.com/7VukGvE4un— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 10, 2019
From the forlorn losing coach: “I could point all the fingers I want,” Greg McDermott said. “But I’d better look in the mirror first.”
Marquette can take this remarkable win and run with it. For one thing, the Golden Eagles were a glorious exception to what had become the theme this week — bad karma for ranked road teams. Six were taken down by unranked opponents in just over 24 hours.
The road was Houston with its first loss of the season, 73-69 at Temple, getting outscored 25-11 from the free throw line and having a last-second tying basket wipe out by a charging call. Ohio State ambushed at Rutgers, the first time in four years the Scarlet Knights had beaten a ranked Big Ten team. Auburn shooting 32.8 percent in a 15-point thumping at Ole Miss.
The road was Mississippi State missing 10 of 23 free throws, committing four turnovers in overtime, and losing to a 6-7 South Carolina team that had been beaten by Stony Brook and Wofford. St. John’s celebrating its entry into the top 25 by blowing a 13-point lead at Villanova. Iowa State, fresh off thrashing Kansas but unable to stop Baylor’s Makai Mason, a graduate transfer from Yale who scored 25 points.
The afflicted didn’t even need to be ranked. The road was West Virginia losing at Kansas State, after leading by 21 points in the second half. Georgetown squandering a 17-point lead at Xavier. And Louisville becoming the first ACC team in nearly two years to lose to Pittsburgh, in overtime. The Panthers had dropped 23 regular season league games in a row.
The road had every chance to be just as bad for Marquette. And then it wasn’t. All it took were the most remarkable 0.8 seconds of the season, at least so far.
Howard will get the headlines, and no wonder. Remember, he’s the guy who scored 40 points in the second half to beat Buffalo. He scored 52 last year against Providence, so he’s the first Division I player in 20 years to twice break 50, something six Virginia opponents have not been able to do this season.
“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised anymore, right?” Wojciechowski said. And McDermott mentioned the scouting reports he had heard from other coaches who had looked down the business end of Markus Howard, “The theme was, if he has one of those nights when he’s making circus shots, good luck.”
But Creighton is just as fascinating a story from this instant classic, and maybe even more so, because of two questions.
How in the name of Omaha did it happen?
How do they recover from it?
First, the explanations of how, starting with the long pass to nobody. Connor Cashaw threw it, and Martin Krampelj at midcourt was supposed to catch it. Something obviously went wrong. McDermott: “If a guard was open early in our movement we were going to throw it. Otherwise we were just going to throw it to the other free throw line. All he had to do was touch it. Why he didn’t, I’m not sure.
“We’re up three, eight-tenths of a second left. It was my responsibility to bring that home and I didn’t do it. This one’s on me . . . When your team doesn’t execute that, that’s on the head coach.”’
Next, the Hauser shot. McDermott: “We put a guy on the ball, we switched every screen. We couldn’t defend that play any better than we did. He was surrounded. He threw up a prayer.”
Finally, Howard’s scoring onslaught, no matter how well he was defended, often by Davion Mintz.
“I felt like we only lost him one time during the game where he wasn’t attended to when he shot,” McDermott said Thursday.
Mintz: “He’s a smaller guy, I know he’s probably used to making tough shots, hands in his face. That’s probably what he practices, he’s probably almost mastered that.
“Sometimes, a hand isn’t good enough.”
FINAL | We end up on the wrong side of an instant classic. pic.twitter.com/KcxO8WhiQQ— Creighton Men’s Basketball (@BluejayMBB) January 10, 2019
The Bluejays have little time to mourn. They host surging Villanova Sunday – “I didn’t feel like watching the Marquette game again last night, so I watched Villanova instead,” McDermott was saying Thursday. “I’m not sure it made me feel any better. They then take a swing through St. John’s and Georgetown. Creighton (10-6) was picked to finish ninth in the Big East, but the early returns have looked a lot better than that. That promising start could go south in a hurry.
“The schedule’s a murderer’s row for us right now,” said McDermott, who understands the situation.
“This can’t define us. It’s a devastating loss. But my work’s going to start tomorrow to get them back ready to practice on Friday . . . My staff and I have to make sure that the ending of this game doesn’t cost us another game. We have to flip the page.”
Wojciechowski called it, “one of the most incredible college basketball games I’ve ever been a part of.”
After a night of reflection, this was McDermott on Thursday: “First time in 30 years I’ve experienced anything like that. Obviously, hindsight is undefeated; there’s a lot of things I wish we could have done different, but you’ve got to live with it and you’ve got to move on.”
Marquette won’t soon forget it. Creighton has to. Regular season game of the year? We know what the bar is now.