It was not a good day to not be wearing red at the Lloyd Noble Center. The Bluejays and the Blue with Maize both left the arena feeling ... well, blue.
(3) St. John's Red Storm 69, (14) Creighton Bluejays 67
Creighton gave the 3-seeded Red Storm all they could handle for 39.9 minutes but it wasn't enough to pull off a first-round upset in Norman, Okla., on Sunday.
St. John's junior Nadirah McKenith nailed an acrobatic, high-sailing floater with 0.1 seconds in the game to break the deadlock and eek out a 69-67 win over the Bluejays. McKenith had what both she and head coach Kim Barnes Arico classified as a bad game for the Red Storm. But McKenith's bad equated to just good enough for junior from Newark.
"She's made a lot of really, really big plays for us all year long and really single-handedly won a lot of games throughout her career for us on plays similar," St. John's head coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "I thought she had not a great game. She didn't play her typical Nadirah McKenith night. But we talk about it all the time. It doesn't matter if you have a bad game, it's one play that can make a difference in the game and Nadirah had that one play that could make a difference tonight and she made it."
She finished with the game-winner and tallied a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including a 6-of-7 outing from the charity stripe. 14 of her points came in the second half, but the last two were the most important.
" Right now, yes. Biggest shot of my life. More to come - hopefully," McKenith said with a laugh.
"I was actually looking for my teammate Gina (Eugeneia McPherson), but they left the lane open. The lane opened up and my eyes just got big and I just went to it."
The Bluejays had the game tied at 49 apiece with 12:16 to play in the game after McKenzie Fujan sunk a three and got the decidedly pro-Creighton crowd to their feet. The fans erupted again at the 4:44 mark when Ally Jensen hit a trey to set the score at 60-56. After a quick steal by Creighton on the inbounds play, Carli Tritz drained a pair of free throws to the roaring approval of the arena.
"You really don't know what to expect. It's the NCAA tournament and you're playing great teams," Da'Shena Stevens said about the tight tussle. "It doesn't matter what the seed is. There's upsets all the time and I just think that you can't ever underestimate anyone. When we come out we know we're going to expect their best, just like they expected ours."
The St. John's lead, ever so tenuous, bloomed to four points with less than two minutes to play as McKenith drove to the hoop for a bucket. With 51 ticks remaining on the clock, the Red Storm clung to a 2-point lead and the ball. And then the whistle blew.
An elbow on Keylantra Langley. A trip to the free throw line by DeNae Moore. A tie game at 65 each and the Bluejays with the ball.
"There were several points where I thought we were going to win," Creighton head coach Jim Flanery said. "I know it's easy to sit up here and say that you believe in your team, because I've had teams that I would say that to. But this team I really feel that way about because we've done it so many times."
Tritz turned it over and gave the Red Storm a chance to retake the lead yet again. Stevens converted at the line with 19 seconds to play. The Creighton fans were gnawing on their fingernails when Stevens returned the favor and allowed Tritz to tie it up with 5.4 seconds remaining in regulation. But for McKenith, 5.4 seconds is a long, long time. Or at least long enough to float in the game-winner.
"I was in position and I wish I could rewind and go back and stay in front of her and draw a charge. Obviously, this one hurts a lot ...," Jensen said as her voice trailed off to the brink of tears.
But for the St. John's Red Storm, a win is a win - and they will take it any way they can get it.
"As much as everybody thinks we're a three seed right now, it's survive and advance. It's one game at a time. We want to be Cinderella," Barnes Arico said. "We don't care about the number three in front of us, it's just about playing a basketball game. If we don't bring our 'A game', we can lose to anybody in the country at this point in time. But if we do, we can beat anybody in the country and that's how we feel."
(6) Oklahoma 88, (11) Michigan 67
The nighcap from Norman was like a home game for the home team. The crowd was the first thing that OU head coach Sherri Coale mentioned after the game was over.
"My first thought is our crowd was fantastic," Coale said to open up the press conference. "I loved the energy in the arena. Everybody who was here was passionately involved in the game. It really helped our team and I just think that's huge. Just want to say how much I appreciate everyone who showed up tonight and helped us win this game. They really were our sixth man."
Along with having a sixth man in the building they had five women on the court that made it look relatively easy. Whitney Hand picked up a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double to go with her six assists. Point guard Morgan Hook added 13 points and four assists for the Sooners. Nicole Griffin and Kaylon Williams protected the paint more effectively that usual and combined for 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting and 16 rebounds.
"For me, it just felt like 'wow'," Hand said. "It was the first time maybe all year that every single player was completely immersed. Nobody was trying. It was just really easy. I felt like we had a lot of joy, a lot of energy, a lot of emotion and we're definitely at our best when we're playing like that."
But the Sooners had one star player that outshone all the rest. Aaryn Ellenberg. Her amazing night wasn't lost on Michigan senior Courtney Boylan.
"Ellenberg is a phenomenal player as you saw tonight," Boylan said. "She can stroke it, she can shoot it, she can drive it, she can do everything. We tried our best to defend her and stop her as best as we could but sometimes she got away from us. She was feeling it tonight. She hit a lot of shots. Extremely phenomenal player, very skilled."
She was skilled enough to finish the game with 28 points, five rebounds and four assists on 10-of-18 shooting. She got 21 of those points in the second half. 13 of those 21 were consecutive, spanning 4:19 near the start of the second as OU stretched the lead to 16.
Ellenberg brushed off the post-game accolades, crediting her teammates and dismissing her amazing efforts on the court.
"I sat a lot in the first half," she said when describing her second half outburst. "I saw how much fun they were having and I really just wanted to be a part of the action. They were having so much fun and I wanted to be out there. I hate not being out there."
After picking up two quick fouls to start the game, Ellenberg sat for all but a few seconds in the remaining 13 minutes in the half. Then she went to work, business-like. No big deal for the sophomore.
"I think most of it was due to my teammates because all of them were so involved," Ellenberg said. "It was really a team effort so it made it a lot easier to just relax and not force anything but just to take the shots that were open ... I have to shoot it for us to be successful, I think." Hand chimed in with a chuckle, "I think so too," echoed by Coale's "Ditto".
Coale later expounded on the nonchalant attitude that is typical Aaryn Ellenberg.
"That's Vegas. Everything is... Miss Causal Sally," Coale said. "She makes it look effortless, and she'll make you think that she's kind of just along for the ride. She really cares. It really matters to her. She came to play tonight, it's obvious."
Coale brought her post-game thoughts full circle, harkening back to the crowd that came to watch the woman who came to play.
"Sometimes the most important thing that you can do is get our of your own way, and if it takes 6,000 people screaming when you make a layup or a three, fantastic," Coale said. "Whatever it takes. But I thought that's what we did tonight. Everybody quit worrying and trying so hard and just got lost in playing."
And everyone in the arena got lost in watching the girl named Vegas shake and bake her way through the opening round of the NCAA tournament.