From coaches who have worked for both Northern Iowa and Creighton to players who have been recruited by, or even signed letters of intent with both teams, it is no secret around the Missouri Valley that the Bluejay and Panther programs are familiar with one another at many different levels.
Tuesday night's 79-68 Creighton victory looked like a game between two teams that knew what to expect coming into the contest. Considering the team's recent history, and current rosters, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
"Last year we played two games that were knock-down, drag-out, very physical basketball games. And, if you think about it, they've got everybody back from last year minus Johnny Moran, and we've got everybody back except Antoine (Young), so why would you expect anything different when we play this year," said current Creighton coach, Greg McDermott, who previously coached the Panthers.
The first half played out like the back-and-forth game most expected. The Panthers opened up a seven-point lead early in the game, as they forced Doug McDermott work for tough scoring opportunities. Creighton responded, and after a 7-0 run where Grant Gibbs either scored or assisted the baskets, the Bluejays took lead for the first time since the opening minutes. According to the senior, it is more difficult for a team to impose their will against an opponent they are so accustomed to squaring off against.
"It's a little frustrating at times. There's so much familiarity with the staffs and with the players too, we've played against those guys since way back when," said Gibbs. "It is frustrating, but I think we knew more that it was going to be like that, remembering the games from last year."
The twelfth ranked Bluejays, lead by strong play from McDermott and reserve center Will Artino, maintained a small lead for the rest of the half. Artino stepped in after Gregory Echenique picked up his second foul of the opening half, and played well, making all three of his field-goal attempts and grabbing a pair of rebounds. Gibbs, who was recruited by the Panthers on two separate occasions, fed Artino for his first bucket, and was glad to see the reserve center rise to the occasion.
"He (Artino) was huge," said Gibbs of his fellow Iowan. "His minutes, he's in a tough spot, there are some really good players playing ahead of him, but he's kept working in practice everyday, kind of just waiting for his opportunity. Tonight was that and he really stepped up and was huge for us."
Just as it looked like the home team was going the head into halftime with momentum on its side, Anthony James knocked down a buzzer-beating jump shot to bring the intermission score to 37-32 in Creighton's favor. James scored 15 of his 25 points in the opening half, and feasted on a Bluejay defense that appeared more concerned with holding Marc Sonnen and Deon Mitchell in check.
The second half proved why Doug McDermott, who once signed on to be member of Ben Jacobson's Panther program, has been the biggest storyline in this budding rivalry. As the Bluejays expanded their lead, the All-American junior scored 20-plus points after the break for a second straight game. McDermott shot 8-12 from the field and 4-4 from the line, as he finished with 31 points. Jacobson, who is no stranger to McDermott's ability, stressed the importance of playing mistake-free defense on the high-volume scorer.
"I don't know that you're going to stop him, and I talked about it prior to the game, you've got to work hard to take away his angle scores. We made a couple mistakes on that and gave him some easy ones. If he gets easy baskets, he is going to get 30 like he got tonight. Had we taken away the three or four easy ones that he got, he was going to be in the low 20's and would have had to work for them," said Jacobson. "He's hard to slow down."
McDermott's performance was his best to date against the school he once thought he would play for, and grew up watching his father coach. He also passed another Bluejay great from the Hawkeye State Kyle Korver for fifth place on Creighton's all-time scoring list.
"It's pretty cool. It's surreal to be honest," said McDermott.
With his son not being one to easily celebrate his individual accomplishments, his coach, and father, shared a little more perspective since he's been on the other side of a Creighton great.
"Obviously, I had my tail kicked by Kyle (Korver) quite a number of times when I was at Northern Iowa, so I have tremendous respect for Kyle," said the Creighton coach. "As Doug said, it's somewhat surreal to think that your son has passed someone that is so well thought of in Creighton basketball history as Kyle."
While CU's next opponent, Wichita State, is no stranger, the Shockers rotation has a much different look than year's past. Gregg Marshall's squad relies on some key newcomers, most notably, Cleanthony Early and Malcolm Armstead. Stopping those two fresh faces will be an original challenge for the Bluejays.