Steve Merfeld recognized the final score instantly. He didn’t celebrate as he did 11 years ago, but he was elated nonetheless.
“Awesome,” the Creighton assistant coach said Friday after the Bluejays’ 58-57 NCAA tournament victory over Alabama. “At this time of year, there’s not a greater feeling.”
Merfeld knows. As Hampton University’s head coach in 2001, he guided the Pirates to a 58-57 first-round upset of Iowa State. Hampton’s victory is among only four in history by a No. 15 seed over a No. 2 seed.
“Same score,” Merfeld told me in a Greensboro Coliseum hallway. “Can you believe it?”
The symmetry wasn't lost on Bobby Collins, either. Collins was an assistant to Merfeld and succeeded him as head coach when Merfeld went to Evansville.
Now the head coach at Winston-Salem State, Collins texted Merfeld after the game: "The magic number. Congratulations."
The Pirates win in Boise, Idaho set off a wild, on-court celebration capped by forward David Johnson hoisting a kicking Merfeld up by the waist. CBS shows the footage to this day.
Merfeld and Creighton were far more sedate Friday. After all, the eighth-seeded Jays are 29-5 and champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Creighton entered the game ranked first nationally in field goal percentage (50.9) and seventh in scoring (80.0). The Jays shot 44.0 percent Friday and missed 12-of-21 free throws, including their last three.
“Just a very resilient group,” Merfeld said. “We’ve done just enough to win games. Our guys have won a ton of close games. ... It’s a very confident group.”
Indeed, five of Creighton’s last seven victories are by four points or less, and two went into overtime. Friday’s win, the program’s first in the tournament since 2002, wasn’t secure until a last-second jumper from the top of the key by Alabama’s Trevor Releford failed to draw iron as Creighton's Josh Jones appeared to hit his arm.
“He might have gotten fouled,” Merfeld conceded. “But in the NCAA tournament, they’re not going to call that. There was a couple at our end. They’re going to let the kids win the game. Like Tinsley driving to the rim, right?”
Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley missed a well-defended (wink) layup at the buzzer against Hampton.
Like the 2001 Pirates, who lost to Georgetown in the second round, Creighton advances to face an iconic program: North Carolina.
Jays coach Greg McDermott assigned Merfeld to compile the Tar Heels scouting report, so Merfeld was headed courtside to watch them play Vermont (UNC won 77-58).
“We can present some problems for them,” Merfeld said. “If we shoot the ball, we’ll be right with them.”
No opponent had shot 50 percent against Carolina until Florida State went for 58.9 as the Seminoles defeated the Heels in the ACC tournament championship game. Carolina was without 6-foot-11 John Henson, the ACC’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker, and the league’s two-time defensive player of the year.
Henson (left wrist) did not play Friday and may not Sunday against Creighton. His replacement is freshman James Michael McAdoo of Norfolk.
“They’re still so big,” Merfeld said. “McAdoo’s skilled, and they can go small and bring (Justin) Watts in. It’s a difference, for sure, because Henson’s a tremendous defensive player and rebounder. …
“To be honest, I hope he does play against us, because if we pick-and-pop, we’ll get better looks than if they play small.”
First-team All-America forward Doug McDermott, the head coach’s son, is Creighton’s primary weapon on the pick-and-pop, where the screener pops to the perimeter rather than rolling toward the basket. He averages 23.0 points and shoots 49.5 percent from three.
Were McDermott and Creighton to upset Carolina, in Greensboro no less, to reach the Sweet 16, we might see another Merfeld Moment.
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