SALT LAKE CITY -- Maybe Chris Kaman is the nation's best pure center. And maybe Kyle Korver is the country's sweetest shooter. But in a head-to-head matchup of the two fair-haired, mid-major darlings, the night belonged to a soft-spoken chess-playing ghost named Mike Manciel.
Three years ago, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior from Detroit -- a guy old enough to have been a prep teammate of Shane Battier -- was the MAC's Freshman of the Year. But after two years full of foot and groin injuries, Manciel finally returned to 100 percent this season. Too bad, he's been overshadowed by the Chips' star big man, Kaman.
However, Kaman never got the wheels hitched to his wagon against the Bluejays. Whether it was the altitude (he was doubling over within three minutes of action) or the defense (Korver was always doubling down on him), Kaman (12 points) wasn't much of a factor. Then, when Kaman got into foul trouble with nine minutes remaining in the first half, Manciel took over.
At the time, the Chips were clinging to a 15-12 lead. By halftime, they led by 16.
"Mike was great tonight," said point guard J.R. Wallace.
Manciel not only slashed his way to the basket (he went six-for-seven for 15 points in the opening half), he also helped spark the active CMU defense which forced Creighton into 13 first-half turnovers.
"We were flat," said Creighton coach Dana Altman. "We just weren't ready to play tonight, and that's my fault."
Tony Bowne, a scrappy 6-3, 210-pound former all-state football player, also deserves credit. He played a major role defensively by hounding Korver all over the court, fighting through screens and darting into passing lanes.
"I'm really proud of the way our team played with Chris Kaman out of the game," said CMU coach Jay Smith. "I thought a lot of guys stepped up big for us."
Creighton rallied in the second half after CMU wore down. The Chips also got careless with the ball, trying to make too many extra passes, said Wallace. It didn't help CMU any that Korver also found his stroke, knocking down deep, off-balance 3s or spotting up from Park City. The Bluejays were poised to overtake CMU. They had closed the gap to 72-70 with one minute left.
Then, right on cue, Manciel drained an 18-footer from the left baseline. Ballgame.
"It was great to see this for him," Wallace said of Manciel. "Sometimes, last year, you could see the frustration on his face, but now he's 100 percent and you could tell how bad he wanted it."
Manciel, whose aggressiveness was measured by his 16 foul shots (he made 11) says he just tried to keep the faith.
"But I'm not gonna be excited. Not gonna smile," he said. "We still have to handle business."
Bruce Feldman is a staff writer at ESPN Magazine..