SALT LAKE CITY - The Mid-American Conference has been a giant-killer in the NCAA tournament for several years, and Central Michigan didn't disappoint last night in the opening round of the West Regional at the Huntsman Center.
While the 11th-seeded Chippewas didn't knock off one of college basketball's big-name teams, they did provide the first big upset in this year's tournament with a wild 79-73 victory over sixth-seeded Creighton.
Led by senior forward Mike Manciel, who scored 15 of his career-high 29 points in the first half, Central Michigan (25-6) built a 16-point halftime lead and led by as many as 26 early in the second half.
But the Chippewas saw that seemingly insurmountable lead cut all the way to 72-70 with 1:38 to go. Manciel, who made big plays all game, saved them one last time, hitting a short jumper to push the lead back to four with 1:10 remaining.
Creighton's last-ditch chance slipped away when a pass inside to backup center Joe Dabbert slipped through his fingers and went out of bounds with 1:01 left. The Bluejays (29-5) never threatened again.
It was the first opening-round victory in the NCAA tournament for the Chippewas, who, in 1975, beat Georgetown in a play-in game and then won a consolation game over Oregon State after losing to Kentucky in the opening round.
"I told the guys a long time ago we're in it to the finish," said Manciel, who was 9-for-14 from the field and 11-for-16 from the free-throw line. "I just wanted to come out and play hard. I had a lot of open looks, and I wanted to knock them down."
Though Creighton does not have the name recognition as some of the MAC's previous conquests, the Bluejays had built their reputation in a similar manner, by knocking out Florida last season.
"They're ranked 19th in the country," said Central Michigan coach Jay Smith. "Ask anybody - the Syracuses and teams like that - if they want to play Creighton. They're a sixth seed for a good reason."
But the team that amassed a school-best record this season by beating the likes of Notre Dame and Brigham Young while also losing a close game at Xavier earlier this season was not the team that showed up in the first half last night.
"We just weren't ready to play," Creighton coach Dana Altman said. "That's my job."
Said senior Kyle Korver, who led Creighton's comeback by scoring 14 of his team-high 21 points in the second half, "One half, you know what I mean, It stinks like that, but that's the way it is sometimes." The Bluejays made just six of 24 shots in the first half, while the Chippewas were a scorching 17 of 29. The last 10 minutes were nearly the opposite, with Creighton scoring on 10 straight possessions in one stretch and Central Michigan running out of gas.
The Chippewas staggered badly and appeared to be on their way to one of the most devastating defeats in recent NCAA tournament history, one that could have been of historic proportions had Creighton come back and won.
"It looked like the rope was running out," said Smith, who had saved a couple of timeouts in case his tired team needed them.
But Manciel threw his teammates a lifeline and finally, with a 75-70 lead, helped disrupt Creighton's offense by nearly making a steal. The ball popped free momentarily, but teammate J.R. Wallace picked it and was fouled.