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Morning After: Disastrous Second Half Dooms #25 Creighton in 91-74 Loss to #15 Gonzaga

Morning After: Disastrous Second Half Dooms #25 Creighton in 91-74 Loss to #15 Gonzaga

[Box Score]

Key Stats:

The first and second half splits tell the story here. First half: 11-17 on two-pointers, 7-14 on three-pointers, 13 assists on 18 made baskets and a -1 rebounding margin.

Second half: 6-18 on two-pointers, 5-11 on three-pointers, four assists on 11 made baskets, and a -8 rebounding margin with nine turnovers.

Recap & Analysis:

Yuck.

With the exception of three ties, Creighton led for the first 23 minutes of the game, and by as many as eight points. But after taking a 44-37 lead at halftime, they were steamrolled in a second half that saw them give up 54 points.

On their first 10 possessions of the second half, they had four turnovers, had three shots blocked at the rim, and found themselves caught in an avalanche of their own creation.

“All of those resulted in runouts the other way for them, where now your defense isn’t set, you’re scrambling, you’re mismatched,” Coach Greg McDermott said on his postgame radio show. “And most of the resulting shots were layups.”

The resulting 21-4 run for the Bulldogs, turning a 46-39 Creighton lead into a 60-50 Gonzaga advantage, happened fast and the Jays seemed helpless — or hapless — in trying to stop it. And the McCarthey Athletic Center crowd that CU had done such a good job of quieting in the first half suddenly became a huge factor.

“We kept the crowd out of the game the first half,” McDermott said. “It seemed like any time they scored, we were able to answer. We shot a really high percentage, we got into the teeth of their defense and made some layups which is so hard to do against them. But in the second half, we contributed to the crowd getting into the game because of our turnovers, and because we tried to challenge them at the rim and lost that battle.”

The second half blowout erased what had been a tremendous first half of basketball. They dictated tempo and scored easy buckets in transition before Gonzaga could set up their defense. They made crisp, decisive passes to set up teammates for open shots, which they knocked down. They defended well and held the Bulldogs’ top two scorers in check — Josh Perkins missed the only shot he attempted, and Johnathan Williams worked extremely hard for his seven points (3-8 shooting). The player we identified in the Primer as the guy you’d be OK becoming a volume shooter because he had been the least efficient scorer in their rotation, Silas Melson, did just that. Of course, he had his best game of the year (5-5 from the floor, 3-3 on three’s for 16 first half points) but in Coach Mac’s system, those are the tradeoffs you’re happy to make in exchange for shutting down their top options. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Martin Krampelj scored on an array of good looks around the rim in that first half as the Jays’ guards got the ball to him in position to score. Marcus Foster scored 15 first-half points, taking great joy in silencing the crowd time after time with big shots just when it looked like Gonzaga was putting momentum together. And Toby Hegner returned weeks ahead of schedule from his ankle injury, giving them a big boost defensively and hitting two huge three-pointers early in the game.

Krampelj’s success in the paint forced Gonzaga into a zone defense, which the Jays sliced and diced as well as they’ve done in recent memory. Hegner, Krampelj, and Khyri Thomas hit mid-range jumpers from the middle of the zone, and later they connected on five out of six 3-pointers that were wide open after dribble penetration collapsed the zone.

“Their frontline does a great job of staying vertical,” McDermott said on his postgame show. “They’re long, they’re athletic, and there’s typically not much to be had in the paint. So you’re either going to have to take that mid-range 15-footer, or you’re going to take it in off the dribble and set your feet and when the defense collapses, spray it around to an open shooter.”

That’s precisely what they did in the first half. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain it for another 20 minutes, and combined with Gonzaga’s halftime adjustments which seemed to surprise CU — they went away from the zone to a straight man-to-man defense, and began switching on ball screens to take away the open looks at the rim for Creighton’s big men — their offense found itself stuck in the mud.

And as things snowballed, Foster and Thomas tried to do too much by themselves. The plan of driving inside not to make a play for yourself but rather to make a play for someone else, which had been so successful in the first half, now became a recipe for poor shots either blocked or altered by Gonzaga’s frontline. Foster was 0-7 on two-point shots in the second half, and Thomas was 2-5 inside the arc. They had just four second-half assists as a team, scoring primarily on iso plays instead of making plays for each other.

It’s hard to look at the long game the morning after a frustrating loss like this. But despite a 17-point road loss, the toughest part of CU’s non-conference schedule is over, and the Jays stand at 5-2. They split four games against ranked foes, picking up a true road win over a likely NCAA Tournament team (or, at worst if their early scuffles continue, an NIT team) in Northwestern and a neutral court win over another likely NCAA team in UCLA. Go back and look at predictions on social media and the Bluejay Underground from three weeks ago prior to this stretch of games; the prevailing opinion was splitting these four games would be a huge step for this team, with an awful lot of the more skeptical fans predicting just one win or even an 0-for.

They got a split, and will now spend the second month of the non-conference at home preparing for Big East play with a pretty decent resume already in their pocket. One of those five games in December features a team hanging around the “Also Receiving Votes” portion of the Top 25 poll in UT-Arlington. Another is against Nebraska, who despite all their usual struggles for relevancy, is a power conference foe that should provide another chance at a Top 150 win. They’ll be favored in all five, should win all five, and if they do will enter Big East play at 10-2.

It feels disappointing because the Baylor game slipped through their fingers and because they led for such a long period last night. But Creighton accomplished more or less what they needed to in the first month of the season, and set themselves up well for the rest of the season.

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