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Morning After: Creighton Wins Thriller at #20 Northwestern Thanks to Another Huge Night from Khyri Thomas

Morning After: Creighton Wins Thriller at #20 Northwestern Thanks to Another Huge Night from Khyri Thomas

[Box Score]

Recap & Analysis:

In their first road game of the 2017-18 season, against a veteran team ranked in the Top 20, the Creighton Bluejays not only won but did it impressively. They dictated pace throughout the game, running every chance they had en route to scoring 92 points on a Northwestern team that prides itself on defense and out-working their opponent. And they did it on the road in front of a feistier-than-usual crowd in Rosemont. Impressive? You bet.

After a back-and-forth beginning whose pace clearly favored the deeper Bluejays, a CU player once again fell victim to the dreaded Allstate Arena Curse. Nate Funk’s season-ending shoulder injury occurred there in 2005. Grant Gibbs’ career nearly ended there in 2014 after a dislocated kneecap. Doug McDermott suffered the worst injury of his Bluejay career there in that same game, a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Not only is the arena itself a dump, it’s a house of horrors for Bluejay players, and unfortunately Toby Hegner became the latest Jay to suffer an injury there. Just five minutes into the game, Hegner landed on the foot of a Northwestern player while battling for a rebound, and crumpled to the court in pain before being helped to the locker room.

Hegner was on crutches with heavy wrapping on the ankle when he returned to the bench, and in a tough moment to watch, was shown by TV cameras sharing an emotional hug with Coach Greg McDermott — at the moment, you couldn’t help but wonder if this was a career-ending injury for the senior, and it was heartbreaking. The preliminary diagnosis is bad but likely not career-ending: a high ankle sprain on his left ankle, which is his “good” one — he had surgery on the right ankle this summer.

With Hegner on the bench, CU began to create some separation eight minutes into the game. Leading 15-11, freshman Ty-Shon Alexander nailed a three-pointer, the first of four treys for him on the night. A bucket from Ronnie Harrell followed, and then the Jays got 16 straight points from newcomers Alexander, Mitch Ballock, and Manny Suarez. Ballock got it started with a driving layup. A second 3-pointer from Alexander followed. 30 seconds later, Alexander hit another three. Then Ballock drove to the rim again and scored on a layup. Alexander did the same on the next possession, and then Suarez sealed his man to create space for a layup the next time down to start a 10-0 run. The three Bluejay newcomers carried the Jays through a tough stretch of the game, and then very nearly put it out of reach — up 47-32, Ballock had a great look at a three-pointer that rattled around the rim before popping out.

Had it gone in, CU leads by 18, and we might have looked back at that shot as the dagger. It didn’t, though, and instead Northwestern ended the half on a 14-7 run to trim the deficit to 51-43 at the break. Still, there was a lot to like — CU had made 17 of 23 field goals over a nearly 12-minute span of the half, using their speed to set up open looks before Northwestern’s defense could get set, and routinely finding holes in their post defense for easy layups.

The Wildcat run continued after halftime, as they scored seven straight points to cut the lead to 51-50. Vic Law was a one-man wrecking crew for them, scoring 12 straight points himself as he took a blowtorch to Marcus Foster’s attempts to guard him with three consecutive three-pointers, and a layup where he blew right past Foster on a missed ballscreen for a mostly-uncontested shot. Law’s third 3-pointer gave Northwestern a 59-57 lead, capping a stretch where the Wildcats scored on 8 of their first 10 possessions to begin the half.

As impressive as the Jays’ opening offensive salvo was, what came after the Wildcats stormed back to take the lead was even more impressive. Rather than wilt under the pressure, they embraced it. Khyri Thomas was the catalyst, scoring 15 second-half points and putting the team on his back for long stretches of time by slashing to the rim seemingly at will, refusing to be denied despite solid defense by Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh. It was an All-American performance by Thomas on both ends — not my words, that’s from InsideNU’s recap, though I obviously agree.

After tying the game at 59, Thomas gave the Jays back the lead moments later with a three pointer to make it 64-63 Creighton. The teams traded haymakers, each time trying to deliver the knockout basket during a furious stretch where both teams scored on four out of five possessions. It was CU who ultimately made more plays, getting another three from Alexander, several clutch layups inside from Martin Krampelj, and buckets from Suarez and Harrell as crunch time neared. In the furious final five minutes, it was — who else — Thomas that led the charge. He stuck a jumper with 5:01 to go that made it 79-75 Jays. He assisted on a three-pointer by Marcus Foster with 4:21 left that made it 82-77. He assisted on a second 3-pointer by Foster moments later to make it 85-78. He set up a pass by Foster to Krampelj for a layup with 1:30 to go that pushed the lead to 87-82. And he hit a pair of free throws in the waning seconds to clinch the 92-88 win.

Thomas wasn’t alone. Foster was just 3-11 from the field, but hit those two 3-pointers late in the game when his team absolutely had to have them — as elite players do, finding a way to get buckets down the stretch even on a night where finding a rhythm was difficult. As Coach Mac said on his postgame radio show, a year ago this was a game where Foster might have gone 3-18 from the field, but this year he’s become so much better at realizing when to pass up a good shot of his own for a great shot by a teammate, and those shots he passed up on Wednesday night might well have been the difference between a win and a loss.

Krampelj scored 17 points with five rebounds, three assists and a block in 26 minutes — making 7-9 from the floor, 2-2 from the line and even hitting a three-pointer. He’s settling into his role defensively, becoming really efficient at scoring on the block, and after three games looking like a vital part of the Bluejay attack on both ends.

Alexander scored 14 points, going 4-6 from three-point range in 21 huge minutes off the bench. Ballock scored six points and grabbed four boards, and though he missed a few assignments defensively on ball screens and switches, was impressive overall. The two Bluejay freshmen have exceeded expectations thus far, and their early breakout — and poise in a tough road environment — raises the ceiling for what this team can do.

Suarez had eight points and five rebounds, settling in after some initial struggles when Hegner went down and giving them a solid, steady game. Mintz had three assists and four rebounds, setting up his teammates on a night where he wisely realized others had the hot hand.

There were lots of big performances in a game that featured three ties and 10 lead changes, and they all led to the Jays returning from Chicago with a 3-0 record as they head to Kansas City for a battle with UCLA. They’ve now won 18 straight non-conference games, with their last loss outside of the Big East coming on December 19, 2015 at #3 Oklahoma.

Key Stats:

Creighton scored 48 points in the paint, lighting up Northwestern’s defense time after time with dribble penetration by their guards and crisp passes to open big men for layups. Thanks to all that scoring around the rim, just 16 of their 68 field goal attempts were three-pointers.

CU out rebounded NU 38-32, including a 7-7 tie on offensive boards. Through three games, the Jays are now +26 on the glass. The best they were at any point last season? +23, which was after the Longwood game. Rebounding is always a concern, it seems like, but at least so far this year it’s less of a concern than expected.

And finally, this was expected due to Northwestern’s lack of depth, but still amazing to look at: the Jays’ bench outscores Northwestern’s bench 33-4.

Standout Performance:

Khyri Thomas scored 24 points on 9-16 shooting, to go along with five assists and just one turnover. Meanwhile defensively, he allowed just 10 points on 4-7 shooting from the Wildcat players he guarded according to analysis by WBR’s Matt DeMarinis.

NU’s Bryant McIntosh, who scored 24 points on the night, got just six points on six shots when Thomas was his primary defender.

Another wild stat: in three Gavitt Games contests vs #14 Indiana, #9 Wisconsin, and #20 Northwestern, Thomas is averaging 17.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and one steal per game. In those games, he’s shot 58.8% from the field, 71.4% from three-point range, and 100% from the line.

But he’s not an all-Big East caliber player according to the people who vote for those things.

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