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Bulldogs gearing up for pivotal MVC showdown against Creighton

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Thanks to a four-game winning streak, Drake has vaulted up the Missouri Valley Conference standings and sat in third place heading into last night’s contest at Northern Iowa. The Bulldogs moved to 5-3 in the MVC with an overtime victory at Southern Illinois last Wednesday, but the team will face its toughest test of the season at the Knapp Center this Wednesday.

Drake hosts No. 18 Creighton, the team that is first place in the MVC and that is on track for an NCAA tournament appearance. The Bulldogs (12-7, 5-3 MVC) dropped a 76-59 decision to the Bluejays (18-2, 8-1) in Omaha, Neb., on Jan. 3.

Since losing to Northern Iowa at the Knapp Center on Jan. 7, Drake has reeled off consecutive wins against Bradley, Evansville, Illinois State and Southern Illinois.

“Different guys have stepped up for us in these last four wins,” head coach Mark Phelps said.

Last week’s 75-68 win in overtime against the Salukis was the Bulldogs’ second-straight road win. Junior Ben Simons led all scorers with 20 points.

“We did enough to get a road win,” Phelps said. “It certainly wasn’t a pretty game.”

Simons is enjoying a breakout season and is one of the reasons Drake is making a successful surge in the Valley. Simons is second on the team in scoring (15.9 points per game) while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. His scoring average ranks sixth in the MVC. He shoots 87 percent from the free throw line, good for second in the conference, and also leads the MVC in 3-point field goals per game (2.6).

Sophomore Rayvonte Rice had 18 points and seven rebounds against the Salukis. Rice leads the team in scoring, third in the MVC, at 17.3 points per game. Rice is second on the team in rebounding (5.2 rebounds per game) and leads the conference in steals per game (2.4).

“He (Rice) makes plays at both ends of the court,” Phelps said after the win against Southern Illinois.

Creighton boasts one of the best players in the country in sophomore Doug McDermott. McDermott is the front runner to take home the Larry Bird Player of the Year award as the top performer in the MVC. He leads the conference in scoring (23.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.4 rpg). He also leads in field goal percentage (61.6 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (52.2 percent). McDermott had 24 points and seven rebounds in the previous meeting against the Bulldogs this season.

Creighton averages 81.8 points per game, which is the top scoring output in the MVC by almost five points. The Bluejays have been nationally ranked for most of the season.

Simons has had the hot hand for Drake, topping 20 points in three of his last four games. He became the first Bulldog in two seasons to win the MVC Player of the Week award for his performances two weeks ago, which included two 21-point games in wins over Bradley and Illinois State.

Despite the success on the court, Drake received some disappointing news on Jan. 10. Phelps announced that juniors Seth VanDeest (shoulder) and Reece Uhlenhopp (foot) will seek medical redshirts and miss the remainder of the season.

VanDeest hoped to return this month to give Drake a viable option in the post, but the 6-foot-11 center will sit out the remainder of the season and still have two full seasons of eligibility.

Uhlenhopp, a 6-foot-8 forward, was expected to add depth to the team’s bench. He will also have two full seasons of eligibility.

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