It was all falling apart. In fact, by the time George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan called his last timeout, it had fallen apart. In less than six minutes on Dec. 8, the Colonials had let what had been a 68-54 lead over Maryland turn into a 75-75 tie with eight seconds to go.
It was cold and snowy outside Verizon Center. Inside, Lonergan was sweating.
“We looked like we’d never seen a press before in our lives,” he said. “Normally, I don’t like to call timeout like that when we’re playing for one shot. But I thought we needed to calm down and try to at least run something that might work.”
Lonergan’s first instinct was to put the ball in the hands of point guard Joe McDonald. It had been McDonald who had gotten all the way to the basket for a layup two weeks earlier in the final seconds against Miami to tie the score, allowing GW to go on and win in overtime. But before Lonergan could say anything, he heard Maurice Creek’s voice.
“Coach, I want the ball.”
It was straight out of “Hoosiers,” with Creek in the role of Jimmy Chitwood. Creek is very familiar with the movie because he spent four years of his life in Bloomington, graduating from Indiana last spring.
Lonergan looked at Creek for a moment and heard him say it again: “I want the ball. Please.”
“I tried to be very respectful about it,” Creek said with a laugh on Friday night after GW had raised its record to 12-2 with an easy 73-55 victory over Georgia at Smith Center. “I wanted it, though. We’d lost the lead and I thought if we did go down, I’d take it on my back. But I also thought I could get a good shot.”
So did Lonergan. More important, he liked the fact that Creek was asking for the responsibility. “As soon as he said it, I knew the right thing was to give him the ball. I thought, ‘This is what we didn’t have last year.’ We lost seven games in the last minute and a lot of it was because we didn’t have that guy who could get a good shot and, more important, wanted to take the shot.”
Creek had taken a long and winding road to get to that huddle on that early-December evening. He had grown up in Oxon Hill and, like a lot of basketball players today, shuttled from one high school to another — playing at three schools his last three seasons. He found stability when Tom Crean, then at Marquette, began to recruit him. When Crean got the Indiana job in 2008, one of his first calls was to Creek. “He told me, ‘Nothing’s changed. I still want to be your college coach.’ ”
With good reason. Creek was a starter from day one as an Indiana freshman and was averaging 16.4 points per game — he scored 31 against Kentucky — when he fractured his left kneecap and had to have season-ending surgery. He rehabbed and came back the next fall but wasn’t the same player, although he was still a starter. Then he got hurt again — this time 18 games into the season — and had to have surgery on his right knee. A year later he had surgery again — this time for a torn Achilles’ tendon — and missed the entire season.
“It was all very difficult,” he said after scoring 15 points against Georgia in spite of a poor (1-of-7) three-point shooting night. “I was really down in the dumps a lot. My teammates were great. I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without them. They kept on me about everything: eating right, rehabbing right, keeping up with my studies. My mom and [stepdad] and my two brothers were there for every surgery.
“All I kept thinking was, ‘I’m a ballplayer. When do I get to play ball again?’ ”
He was finally healthy last season, but by then Crean had recruited Victor Oladipo (the No. 2 pick in last June’s NBA draft) out of DeMatha and had built a team that was ranked No. 1 nationally for most of the season. Creek got into 24 games but averaged eight minutes a night and 1.8 points. He felt buried.
“I don’t have any problem with what Coach Crean did,” he said. “You’re a coach, you don’t recruit, you get fired — it’s that simple. He had no idea if I’d come back or how good I’d be when I came back. But it was frustrating. I was part of it, but I wasn’t part of it. I was finally healthy and I wanted to play the game again. I felt like I’d missed four years.”
Because Creek was on schedule to graduate, he was eligible to play a fifth season as a graduate student. When Lonergan heard on the local AAU grapevine that Creek might be leaving Indiana, he was intrigued, but wary.
“We had good chemistry in the group we had coming back,” he said. “I didn’t want to mess that up. On the other hand, we needed a shooting guard.”
Lonergan invited Creek to work out with his team once school was over to see how he might fit in. The word that came back from his players was unanimous: get him in a GW uniform. It helped that Creek and Isaiah Armwood, GW’s other fifth-year player, had known each other well from their AAU days. But Creek was welcomed to the fold because of his maturity, his approach and his jump shot.
Which may explain why no one in the huddle had any objections when the new guy said he wanted the ball with the Maryland game in serious jeopardy. Lonergan ordered a simple clear-out for Creek — sending the other four players to the baseline so Creek could have space to go one-on-one against Nick Faust.
Just like in the movie, Creek dribbled to his left, crossed over to his right and, when Faust slipped just a tiny bit, cleared enough space to get the step-back shot over him.
“I’m not sure you can say I waited my whole life to take that shot but I went through a lot for four years to take it,” Creek said. “I’ve only been here a few months, but I feel really close to these guys. It was fun to celebrate with them after it went in.”
Creek is enrolled in a one-year graduate certificate program in human leadership and development. He’s 23 and has a 1-year-old daughter who lives in Ohio with her mother, Creek’s girlfriend. Someday, he’d like to work in an NBA front office or perhaps coach. “I’ve certainly seen almost every up or down a player can see,” he said with a smile. “I’d be prepared.”
But for now, he wants to be a kid playing ball for as long as possible. GW starts play in the Atlantic 10 on Thursday at La Salle. “I can’t wait,” Creek said. “I never got to experience an entire Big Ten season as a starter. Now’s my chance — finally.”
He’s a ballplayer again — a healthy one. And when his team most needs a basket this winter, the ball will likely be in his hands. Just like in the movie.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.