Two days after playing less than their best but still beating #9 seed Alabama, the #8 Creighton Bluejays couldn’t do the same against #1 North Carolina. With a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line and the Tar Heels essentially playing in front of a home crowd, the Bluejays couldn’t make enough shots or force enough stops to stem the UNC scoring spurts. And with that, after winning 29 games — including the school’s first in the NCAA Tournament since 2002 — Creighton’s basketball season ended.
It was a season that started in earnest more than seven months ago, as Greg McDermott prepared his players for a preseason exhibition trip to the Bahamas. It was a season that saw the Jays start 7-0, and included winning streaks of 11 and 8 along the way to a 29-6 final mark (tying the school record for wins in a season). It was a season before which Doug McDermott represented America on the USA Basketball U19 team, and during which he earned first-team All-America honors. Antoine Young finished his Creighton career with a win in his only trip to the Big Dance. Many others got to experience the tournament, and hopefully have a hunger to return in the next few seasons. The Jays, preseason favorites in the Missouri Valley Conference, played with a target on their backs all season and still managed to win almost five times as many games as they lost.
And barring unexpected developments, the Bluejays will bid farewell to just one senior scholarship player, Young. Creighton’s positioned well for next season, having experienced the challenge of facing a top-five team on a not-so-neutral court in the sport’s best postseason tournament. Plus they’ve won. As frustrating as a loss to Carolina was in the third round, it was critically important as the better seed to beat ‘Bama in the second round. Despite the missed free throws and a subpar scoring performance, the Bluejays managed to out-slug the type of SEC foe Creighton just can’t get to commit to a home-and-home series in non-conference play. Forget Carolina; games against teams similar to the Tide are hard to come by for the Bluejays, too. Pulling out a victory while getting sucked in to the grinding pace presented by Anthony Grant’s team provides Coach Mac and his staff a great win upon which to build into next season.
As the stakes increase in the tournament, though, so too does the quality of opponent. I wasn’t surprised that CU’s year ended against North Carolina. But I wasn’t shocked, either, that the Bluejays stood toe to toe with the Heels. Carolina’s assumed edge in height, speed, and athleticism was evident from the opening tip. Still, the Jays displayed toughness and character while trying to figure out a way to get some shots to fall. Unable to match the height and speed of the team across the court, it would take a great shooting performance to push the Tar Heels for forty minutes. But Creighton couldn’t muster such a night, shooting nearly ten percentage points lower from the field than their nation-leading average.
Meanwhile, the Heels maintained a torrid shooting pace until the last few minutes of the first half. Roy Williams’ team made half of their field goals and half of their three-point attempts for the game, scoring 87 points in their 14-point victory. Mac’s strategy seemed aimed at challenging forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller with physical play, and those plans worked in stretches. But Carolina was deadly from medium and long range, answering Creighton hoops with pull-up jumpers and threes. On the other end the Tar Heels used their height across the front line to challenge or alter many of the shots Doug McDermott usually makes with ease. McDermott, named a Naismith Award finalist over the weekend, finished with 20 points and 9 rebounds vs. UNC, two days after he recorded a double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) against the Crimson Tide.
Although they were unable to overcome one of the national one-seeds, plenty of Bluejays showed flashes against Carolina. Gregory Echenique played solid defense (again) against Alabama and then turned in one of his best all-around efforts of the year against UNC, punctuating a punishing day in the paint by posterizing Henson, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, with a one-handed flush during the second half. Josh Jones came off the bench against Alabama and made crucial plays on both ends of the court down the stretch to secure CU’s win against the Tide. He performed well against Carolina on Sunday, too, scoring 10 points and joining Young (10), Echenique (12), and McDermott in double figures against the Heels. Grant Gibbs was exceptional against ‘Bama, posting 10 points and 6 rebounds while dishing 4 assist and committing a single turnover in a game-high 38 minutes. And when his scoring dropped off against UNC, Gibbs provided a spark for CU on the boards (team-high 10 rebounds) and in the trenches, even coaxing a technical foul out of Henson like he did against Colt Ryan and Johnny Hill earlier in the season.
In the end, though, the Bluejays couldn’t muster the firepower required to eliminate a team like the Tar Heels. Creighton enters an offseason during which they’ll need to replace Young, the stalwart point guard the previous three seasons. The Jays will work newcomers in amongst a solid core of returning starters and subs. And they’ll be able to build off a solid victory in the NCAA Tournament and the experience of taking on a national title contender and coming up short. Creighton accomplished a lot in McDermott’s second season at the helm; here’s hoping next year brings further improvements and continued success.