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Morning After: Creighton Holds Off Late Georgetown Rally to Win 85-77

Morning After: Creighton Holds Off Late Georgetown Rally to Win 85-77

[Box Score]

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In the eighth-annual Creighton versus Cancer “Pink-Out”, Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas combined for 50 points, the Bluejays held off a late rally by Georgetown with clutch plays on defense and near-perfection from the free throw line in the final minute, and they picked up an 85-77 win to move to 17-5 overall (7-3 in the Big East.)

But while all of that is good stuff, it feels like burying the lede.

6’11” freshman Jacob Epperson is no longer a redshirt — he’s going to play the rest of the year and try to give the Jays back some of what they lost when Martin Krampelj’s season ended with a torn ACL. The possibility of Epperson taking the floor has been a hot topic on the Bluejay Underground ever since Krampelj went down, but with Epperson rehabbing from minor surgery and not in game shape until recently, it was unclear how realistic of a possibility it really was. But late in the week, he quietly began running reps with the starters in practice, and on Friday his time was spent exclusively with that group instead of the scout team, leading observers to wonder what was up.

Six minutes into the game, all 18,518 fans in attendance (and the TV audience at home) found out what was up. Epperson ripped off his warmup shirt and headed towards the scorers’ table — the Jays’ were burning his redshirt.

When he checked in, he received a standing ovation from the CenturyLink Center fans. And on his very first offensive possession, he showed off some of the raw skills that could make him an X-Factor in the final 15 games of the season. He was active, setting two ball screens and rolling to the rim after both of them hoping for a lob — something Justin Patton did all the time a year ago, and Martin Krampelj had become adept at this year. The possession ended with Davion Mintz finding him all alone in the center of the Hoya defense, and Epperson throwing down a dunk.

The standing ovation he received just for checking in was one of appreciation — burning a redshirt 20 games into a season is a tough decision and a team-first move, as he’ll never get those 20 games back. The standing ovation he received after the dunk, on the other hand, was one of hope — Creighton’s been a different team post-Krampelj, lacking a big man that defenses have to respect above the rim. And on that very first possession against the big frontline of the Hoyas, he gave them that.

It was just one possession, sure, but suddenly a second consecutive season of lessened opportunity for March glory following an injury to a starter had new life.

Those would be the only points he scored in nine minutes, adding two rebounds. He had two missed chances at the rim for easy buckets that didn’t connect — whether it was nerves, or the speed of the D1 game, it’s hard to say — but the fact that he created scoring chances for himself off of ball screen activity, even though he couldn’t capitalize, is promising for the rest of the season.

“We had a long talk with Jacob’s parents on Thursday night and again on Friday morning,” Greg McDermott said after the game. “It’s a really an unselfish decision by him and his parents. And if he or they had said no, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Epperson’s mother, Katherine, echoed that sentiment in a tweet:

Epperson’s dunk gave the Jays a 20-13 lead; they’d jumped out to an 8-2 lead two minutes in thanks to four baskets in the paint. Three were layups (one each from Toby Hegner, Ronnie Harrell, and Marcus Foster, the latter coming after Foster stole the ball on defense and raced down court). The fourth was an alley-oop to Foster. But Georgetown was resilient, tying the game twice and taking the lead halfway through the first stanza 25-23. The Hoyas were red-hot from behind the arc, making seven of their first 10 three-pointers, and the jumper by Jagan Mosely to give them that 25-23 lead capped a span of six straight possessions where they scored.

CU switched to a 1-3-1 zone, and though Georgetown got a three-pointer from Jahvon Blair in their first possession against the zone, it would be the only one — over roughly five minutes of action, the Hoyas were flummoxed. They missed five straight shots after Blair’s three, they committed two turnovers, and the Jays took advantage. A jumper by Foster tied the game at 28; Khyri Thomas cleared the defensive glass on the next possession and stuck a jumper on the other end to give them the lead 30-28. CU did switch back to a man-to-man defense with the Hoyas ahead 33-30 and 3:45 to play, but that confused Georgetown even more. They missed six straight shots to end the half. The Bluejays made six of eight. And the resulting 16-0 run — capped off by two Foster three-pointers in the final 42 seconds, including one at the horn — gave Creighton a 46-33 lead at the break.

Georgetown didn’t spend much time dwelling on that run. They emerged from their locker room while Red Panda was still entertaining fans with her bowl-flipping, unicycle-riding skills, and hung out in the tunnel; they began their second half shoot around with almost eight minutes left on the halftime clock. Although brief, whatever head coach Patrick Ewing said to them clearly made a difference. “We didn’t start the game out with the intensity and with the right frame of mind that I would have liked,” Ewing said in his postgame press conference. “In the second half, we came with a lot more intensity, a lot more effort, a lot more focus.”

They clogged up the interior, for starters. After getting 20 points in the paint in the first half, Creighton managed just eight in the second. 12 of their 22 shot attempts were threes, and they made just four of them. And the Hoyas began dominating the glass, grabbing seven offensive rebounds in the second half.

Still, Creighton maintained a 15 point lead after eight minutes. Then the whistles started. In the span of three minutes, the Hoyas attempted 10 free throws, making nine of them, and began chipping into the lead. McDermott had been riding the officials hard for most of the game, and finally crossed a line as with 9:40 to play he was assessed the rare (for Mac, anyway) technical foul. It did nothing to stop the Hoyas momentum, or the way the game was officiated, unfortunately. And with 4:25 left, the Hoyas had cut the lead to a single point, 68-67, after a three from Jonathan Mulmore.

They’d get no closer, though the final minutes were tense.

Hegner answered with a three for the Jays, and was in turn answered by Jahvon Blair with a three 20 seconds later. It was 71-70 Bluejays, and after Thomas missed a jumper, the Hoyas had the opportunity to take the lead.

Thomas had other ideas. He stripped the ball from Blair in front the Georgetown bench, somehow kept both the ball and his feet in bounds along the sideline, and raced down court for a tumbling, acrobatic layup — drawing a foul on top of it. His three-point play gave the Jays a 74-70 lead.

“He picked up his dribble pretty high, and I just waited for Pickett to move up and go catch it,” Thomas said afterwards. “He didn’t have any choice but to throw it — the clock was winding down — and I was like, ‘oh, this is going to be one’ and I got it.”

On the next defensive series, he went toe-to-toe with Marcus Derrickson in the paint and forced the 6’7” forward who had scored 15 second-half points into a bad shot. Thomas corralled the rebound, and though the Jays couldn’t score on the other end, that did nothing to diminish the genius of those two back-to-back defensive possessions by Khyri Thomas. When his team needed it most, against two completely different types of players, the defending Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year made two equally brilliant defensive plays to seal the game and offered yet more evidence for why the “Co” has to be dropped from that title this March.

Not to be left out of the fun, Harrell came up with a steal on the next trip down, and found Davion Mintz for a long jumper to push the lead out to 76-70. Harrell explained the play after the game. “My main objective was to use my quickness to get around him and make his catches tough. They started going to a high-low play and I caught onto that. I knew once Govan caught it up top that I could do a little spin love and tip it back towards [Toby].”

They’d make nine of their 10 free throw attempts in the final minute, and run off with an important victory.


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