It's Wichita State's seniors that, the story goes, set the Shockers apart.
They have a bunch of guys who have been through the Missouri Valley Conference wars. Seniors aren't supposed to blink. They're supposed to find a way, even in the most difficult times and against the most difficult opponents.
But the Shockers' seniors had a New Year's Eve meltdown Saturday at Koch Arena. It was as if Times Square fireworks failed to spark, leaving a crowd of party-goers grumbling and grousing.
WSU played undisciplined basketball after building a nice cushion and lost to a more-determined, more-focused Bluejays team 68-61 before a sellout crowd of Shocker revelers who had a big bucket of water — not confetti — dumped on their heads.
When it counted most, the Shockers panicked offensively. They threw up ill-advised three-pointers and didn't stop.
And Wichita State's five seniors — center Garrett Stutz, forward Ben Smith and guards Toure Murry, David Kyles and Joe Ragland — played like they had flashed back to their freshman seasons.
Combined, those five were 11 of 43 from the field, and 4 of 23 in the second half. Instead of playing with confidence and poise offensively, they were impatient and out of sorts.
When Murry rushed a three-pointer with 2:56 left and the Shockers down 62-56, WSU coach Gregg Marshall threw his hands in the air as if to say, "Who are these guys?"
But it wasn't the last rushed three-point shot of the half.
Kyles launched one with less than a minute to play and Smith put one up from three feet beyond the three-point line with 30 seconds remaining. WSU trailed by four points, 65-61. There was time to be judicious.
"I was disappointed in our execution,'' Marshall said. "I was disappointed in our ability to read the situation and function efficiently offensively.''
Wait until he pores over the game film. I would suggest somebody be in the room with him when that happens.
It was such a strange sight, considering the veteran Shockers have been so good in big moments this season. And there was a long stretch in the first half, after falling behind 14-5, that WSU was in control.
The Shockers led 39-28 with 1:43 left and could have padded it more except for a bad possession late in the half. Instead, Creighton's Antoine Young scored on a three-point play with two seconds remaining to pull the Bluejays to within eight.
It took less than seven minutes for Creighton to get the game even, 46-46, in the second half. The Bluejays' offense ran fluidly after they figured out star forward Doug McDermott wasn't going to be getting loose often from Wichita State defenders.
Instead of forcing the ball to McDermott, other Creighton players — especially reserve guard Josh Jones — got involved. Jones hit two big three-pointers in the second half.
Creighton was coming off a surprising loss at home to Missouri State last week and some questioned the Bluejays' will to play defense. Creighton has been a high-scoring team, but Missouri State was able to exploit CU's defense.
"This is probably the least amount of time I've spent on an opponent,'' Creighton coach Gregg McDermott said of his team's preparation for Wichita State. "We know Wichita State's personnel, but if we didn't fix the things we had going south, it didn't matter how much we prepared for our opponent.''
Creighton's defense, no doubt, was better than it was against Missouri State. But it wasn't all about the Bluejays' defense Saturday. Wichita State's offense contributed mightily to the downfall.
Too bad, because we should be talking about the effort put forth by WSU junior forward Carl Hall, who played the best game of his short Division I career so far with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Five were offensive rebounds and three turned into baskets.
It was when Hall picked up his third foul, with 14 minutes left, that the game started to get away from Wichita State. Leading 46-41, the Shockers were on the wrong end of an 11-3 Creighton run by the time Hall returned with 9:29 left and the Bluejays leading 52-49.
Marshall said Hall was due a break anyway. And there's no way a team with the depth of the Shockers should allow the absence of any player to cause the kind of letdown Hall's absence caused.
"He's the one guy today who played to his capabilities,'' Marshall said of Hall. "I didn't want to put him over there on the bench for too long. I hope I didn't leave him over there for too long.''
Creighton couldn't keep the 6-foot-8, 228-pound Hall off the glass. He chased every shot and said the official who called his third foul later apologized to him for calling it.
"I didn't want an apology,'' Hall said.
He wanted to continue playing.
All season long, the Shockers have picked one another up. When a guy who is playing well has gone to the bench for a few minutes, the guy who has replaced him doesn't drop off.
The struggle Saturday was to find anyone who could help Hall. The search lasted for 40 minutes. It was unsuccessful.