Published Friday, March 1, 2013 AT 11:44 PM / Updated at 2:06 AM
CU seniors’ careers long on memories, short on regrets
Steven Pivovar Omaha World-Herald

Josh Jones had no regrets when a heart issue brought a premature ending to his Creighton basketball career.

Grant Gibbs and Gregory Echenique have no regrets about the decisions that ultimately led them to Omaha and become part of a group that has accomplished some special things.

Saturday, Jones, Gibbs and Echenique are among the five players taking their final bow before the home fans on Senior Day. They will be honored, along with Taylor Stormberg and Joe Kelling, after Creighton’s game against Wichita State.

Jones, who hasn’t been able to play since early December, hinted that something special could take place before the game but declined to provide any details. Afterward, he intends to pay tribute to a fan base he says “has always had my back.’’

“I want to thank them,’’ Jones said, “and let them know how I feel.’’

His teammates and coaches jokingly wonder if he’ll wrap it up before UNO drops the puck for its Saturday night hockey game against Wisconsin. Anyone that knows the gregarious Jones knows that he’s hard to stop once he gets going.

“All jokes aside,’’ Jones said, “what I’m going to say is going to come straight from the heart.’’

Jones’ heart gave out before his passion for the game did. A Dec. 6 episode before Creighton’s game at Nebraska led to two surgical procedures to slow an accelerated heartbeat and forced him to give up the game he loves.

“Saturday is going to be bittersweet for me,’’ Jones said.  “I always thought I’d go out playing in my last game.  Still, I’m appreciative for everything Creighton has given me.   At the end of the day, I’m going to graduate and ultimately be prepared for something bigger than the game.’’

A high-scoring star in high school at Omaha Central, Jones learned to embrace the role of sixth man. He fulfilled a childhood dream last season when he helped get Creighton to the third round of the NCAA tournament and a matchup against North Carolina, the team he idolized as a youth.

“In the end, though, the thing I’ll remember more than any jump shot or any win is the people,’’ Jones said. “My brothers on the team, my coaches, the people that supported me.   I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity but it’s all been worth it.’’

Echenique and Gibbs feel the same way. Each started his collegiate career at another school — Echenique at Rutgers, Gibbs at Gonzaga. Former Creighton coach Dana Altman recruited Echenique out of high school, then welcomed him to Omaha after the 6-foot-9 center had played a season and a half for the Scarlett Knights.

Echenique never played for Altman, who left in the spring of 2010 for Oregon. His replacement, Greg McDermott, remembers the first time he met Echenique, whose weight was pushing 300 pounds after a semester of inactivity while recovering from eye surgery.

“I remember telling him that my goal for him was to someday weight less than me,’’ McDermott said.

Echenique transformed his body over the past 2 ½ seasons and now packs 260 perfectly placed pounds on that 6-9 frame. He’s developed into the most dominant defensive post player that McDermott says he ever coached. He still struggles at times offensively but will finish his career with more than 1,300 points.

Saturday will mark Echenique’s final appearance at the CenturyLink Center but he’s hardly looking at the game as a good-bye moment.

“It might be my last home game, but so many of our fans are going to follow us to St. Louis,’’ said Echenique, referring to the more than 4,000 Creighton fans that are expected to attend next week’s Missouri Valley tournament. “And wherever we go after that, our fans travel so well.

“I’m thankful for everything I’ve experienced here but I’m certainly not said. I’m happy I’ve been a part of this.’’

His transfer to Creighton provided the native Venezuelan with basketball experiences he felt would have been impossible to attain had he stayed at Rutgers.

“Teamwise, we did things here that I don’t think I could have done at Rutgers,’’ he said. “We went to the NCAA tournament, we’ve been ranked. Those are things that I always wanted to accomplish.

“Plus, the support I’ve received from the fans has been nice. I have no regrets whatsoever about coming here.’’

Gibbs broke McDermott’s heart when, as a high school player, he decided to turn down the coach’s offer to attend Iowa State in favor of heading west to Gonzaga. Two years later, McDermott provided Gibbs with the perfect landing spot when the player decided to transfer.

“Guys transfer and they think they’re going to go somewhere else and it’s all going to work out,’’ Gibbs said. “That always isn’t the case, and I was lucky to land with this coaching staff and the personnel that we have and find a role with this team.’’

In McDermott’s mind, Gibbs personifies leadership. He’s been a team captain both seasons he played for the Bluejays.   He’s been steadying influence on and off the court that every great team needs.

Knee problems have limited some of his on-court effectiveness but his high basketball IQ and natural leadership skills have helped him compensate.

“Of all the guys I’ve coached, I think he gets the most out of what he’s been blessed with,’’ McDermott said. “His IQ helps him overcome a lot of his physical limitations, and it’s been impressive to watch how important his leadership has been for us.’’

A victory over Wichita State on Saturday would allow Jones, Echenique and Gibbs to leave the court as champions. It also would establish a school record for victories (53) over a two-season period while moving the Bluejays closer to attaining their goal of making it back to the NCAA tournament.

“It would be a great reflection on everything this group has been able to accomplish,’’ Gibbs said. “It would be last piece to the puzzle in terms of all the hard work we’ve put in.’’

About Steven Pivovar

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series. You can follow Steven on Twitter (@PivOWH) or email him at spivovar@owh.com.