Four More Get Foot In The Door

Creighton's DeAnthony Bowden cuts down the net in celebration of winning the Missouri Valley tournament championship by beating Southern Illinois Monday, March 10, 2003
While Creighton maintained its firm grasp on the Missouri Valley Conference title and snagged another NCAA tournament berth, there was a changing of the guard in the West Coast Conference where San Diego stunned perennial champ Gonzaga.

Meanwhile, Manhattan and North Carolina-Wilmington helped kick off a wild week of conference championship basketball and secured a spot in the NCAA field with tournament wins.

Creighton 80, S. Illinois 56

"Tonight, we proved who is the best in the Valley," Creighton's Larry House said. "It was no letup for us, from start to finish."

The 19th-ranked Bluejays got 20 points from House and took advantage of horrendous first-half shooting by top-seeded Southern Illinois in an 80-56 Missouri Valley Conference championship game victory on Monday night.

Creighton was ahead by 26 points at halftime and led by 33 early in the second half as the Salukis missed 17 of their first 18 shots and never recovered.

The Bluejays were the second seed in the tournament after losing 70-62 on March 1 at Southern Illinois (24-6), the regular-season champion the last two years. Creighton struggled in its first two tournament games, a pair of one-point victories over Indiana State and Wichita State, but put it all together in the final.

"I'd like to be able to take the credit and say I made a great speech or something," coach Dana Altman said. "I'm not sure what the difference was, but we played very well."

"This one is hard to explain," Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Maybe we used up all our energy in getting here. They just kept coming at us and I'm not sure this one will heal very quickly."

Despite the lopsided finale, both teams likely are headed to the NCAA tournament. Creighton gets the conference's automatic bid for its fifth straight trip, and Southern Illinois was ranked 37th in the RPI.

Southern Illinois hopes the NCAA selection committee won't put too much weight on this game.

"Obviously, I'm a little worried," guard Kent Williams said. "We were supposed to win and now all we can do is sit back and let others decide."

San Diego 72, Gonzaga 63

The West Coast Conference tournament isn't the exclusive domain of the Gonzaga Bulldogs anymore.

The San Diego Toreros finally got a piece of the action, beating the top-seeded Zags 72-63 Monday night to claim the tournament title and their first NCAA berth since 1987.

"We wanted Gonzaga," said big man Jason Keep, who scored 18 points. "All week we've been talking about playing them. We beat the best and our prize is the NCAAs. It doesn't get better than that."

It was the first time in the tournament's 17-year history that the host team won the title and the automatic NCAA berth.

Keep, named the tournament MVP, exhorted the crowd at Jenny Craig Pavilion when he fouled out with 14.4 seconds left, and Matt Delzell tossed the ball into the rafters as the buzzer sounded and the students rushed the court.

The Toreros (18-11) reached the NCAAs for the first time in nine seasons under coach Brad Holland, and for just the third time ever. They lost in the first round in both 1984 and 1987.

"We've accomplished something that's both meaningful and historic," Holland said.

Gonzaga (23-8), which won the WCC tournament the last four years, is expected to get an at-large NCAA bid. The Zags reached the NCAA regionals three straight seasons before losing to Wyoming in the first round last year.

"It's an awfully big disappointment," coach Mark Few said. "We take a lot of pride in taking care of business in the conference tournament and today we didn't do so.

"We just didn't make enough big plays down the stretch," Few said. "Their seniors stepped up and that's what you need to win the tournament."

San Diego was playing in the title game for just the second time, while Gonzaga was in it for the sixth straight year.

Manhattan 69, Fairfield 54

Bobby Gonzalez's white shirt was held tight to his body by some very cold water his players had dumped on him.

"I'll probably have pneumonia in two minutes. I'm shaking like a leaf," the fourth-year coach said Monday night just minutes after Manhattan beat Fairfield 69-54 in the championship game of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

That meant the Jaspers were in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995, and Gonzalez seemed more than ready for the hectic time leading up to the opening-round game.

"We're a dangerous opponent in the first round," he said. "Mark it down. No predictions. Mark it down."

It's easy to be that confident when you coach the best team in the league and it just won because of the best player in the conference.

Luis Flores had 22 points and 10 rebounds and he made sure Manhattan was never in trouble.

Manhattan (23-6) was the preseason pick to win the MAAC and the Jaspers held first place almost all season. They took advantage of the league's new policy giving the regular-season champion a bye to the semifinals and won two games to win it all.

North Carolina-Wilmington 70, Drexel 62

He's unselfish on the court, fearless in the clutch and very humble for one of the best players ever in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Brett Blizzard was all of those things one more time Monday night, turning his final game in the CAA tournament into one of his best and leading North Carolina-Wilmington to its third championship in four years — and a return to the NCAA tournament.

"I feel like my role on the team sometimes is when we're in a tight situation to come up with a shot and make something happen," Blizzard said after scoring 13 of his 20 points in the second half as the Seahawks jumped Drexel early and won 70-62.

"I try to have confidence in myself to make the shot and I think them having confidence in me to take it is what helps me even more," Blizzard added.

"I think the experience of being in the finals four straight years was the difference," coach Brad Brownell said. "Our kids have been in big games."

And been smart enough to let their two-time CAA player of the year take over.

Blizzard also had six rebounds, four assists and a steal. Tim Burnette added 16 points, all in the first 23 minutes, and Callahan had 16 and grabbed six rebounds.