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Creighton Topples Akron 77-60 in NCAA Tournament First Round

by Mar 21, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

Creighton Topples Akron 77-60 in NCAA Tournament First Round
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

No. 3 Creighton men’s basketball rode a big second half to a 77-60 win over No. 14 Akron in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday afternoon.

The Jays will move on to the second round in Pittsburgh.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Facing Little Resistance

There was a stretch late in the second half where Creighton went nearly five minutes without scoring. Creighton missed two 3s and a hook shot and turned it over four times during that stretch and Akron used the lull to take a 34-31 lead.

That was really the only time Creighton had any real difficult scoring all game. The Jays responded to the drought with a 28-8 run to take firm control and were shooting over 60% from the field before slowing things down with a 20-point lead.

Creighton shot 56.5% from the field including a program tournament record 58.8% (10-of-17) from 3 and 75% from the free-throw line.

“As we got that lead, we made it a point to play through [Ryan] Kalkbrenner, and I thought the guys did a good job of picking their spots. The 17 3-point shots, we had a couple we had to take in late clock situations, but I think they were really good 3s for us against a team that’s been elite all season of taking away 3s and making sure the percentage — I think teams shot 30% against Akron on the season from 3. So to do what we did offensively against what I consider a very defensive team is really a credit to our team.”

The Jays were firing on all cylinders, with each of their big guns going to work at different points.

Ryan Kalkbrenner led the way with 23 points on 9-of-14 from the field (1-of-1 from 3) and 4-of-7 from the free-throw line as Akron had no answers for the 7-footer. He added eight boards and three blocks to his line, just a few hours after being named one of four finalists for the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Trey Alexander finished with 19 points and five boards, scoring at all three levels (two layups, three mid-range jumpers and a 3) plus the free-throw line (6-for-7).

Baylor notched another double-double with 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting (3-for-5 from 3) and 13 rebounds. He notched his 100th 3 of the season and 300th rebound of the season during the game.

Steven Ashworth and Mason Miller gave Creighton five starters in double figures with 10 points apiece, shooting a combined 5-for-7 from deep. Ashworth added five assists while Miller chipped in four rebounds.

“I work on my shot every single day, so I kind of come into the game expecting to make shots like that,” Miller said. “I guess just running to the corner, getting open looks and playing within the offense kind of helps the team a lot, especially when we have great players like Ryan and Baylor over here, being able to space the floor for them, it’s huge for them.”

The only thing that prevented the game from becoming a blowout was Creighton’s turnovers, which will like be McDermott’s point of emphasis heading into preparations for Saturday. Creighton gave it away 14 times, many of them careless or the result of getting sped up against Akron’s on-ball pressure.

Stay the Course

The Zips provided a unique challenge defensively. Their tallest player is a 6-foot-9 3-point shooter while their leading scorer is a 6-foot-7 post.

Creighton looked to be in a bit of trouble out of the gate as the Zips hit four of their first six 3-point attempts. Enrique Freeman, the MAC Player of the Year who had made 17 3s all season and had never hit more than two in a game, had three of those triples in the first five minutes (though the first one banked in).

Freeman put up 15 points in the first half and led the Zips to that 34-31 lead late in the first half. However, the Jays didn’t panic. They made some tweaks, upped their execution level and dominated the next 15 minutes, turning that three-point deficit into a 20-point lead.

“We had to make some adjustments when the bigs were hitting 3s, so we had to switch a little bit more, and then we got cross-matched a few times. But I thought early in the second half … I think Johnson hit a couple tough 2s where we went over the screen, we were there. He hits a 16, 17-footer with a hand in his face; that’s kind of what we’re trying to do. So I was happy, really, after the first seven or eight minutes of the game. I thought we settled in a little bit better defensively. But credit to them, they also made some tough shots.”

Freeman hit some tough hook shots over Kalkbrenner, but he missed his last four 3s and it ended up taking him 21 shots to score his 21 points.

“I think it’s a little bit getting used to how he plays,” Kalkbrenner said of slowing Akron’s star down. “You can watch someone on film a lot and get as used to it as you can, but at the end of the day he’s a really good player and just made some mental adjustments as to how I wanted to guard him in the post and did a little better job.”

Akron, who isn’t a good 3-point shooting team, went 2-for-22 after that hot start. Creighton outshot Akron by 20% in the second half, holding the Zips to 32.4% from the field in the final 20 minutes and 37.9% overall.

Creighton covered the betting spread and held Akron below the point total KenPom projected. The Jays didn’t overreact to Akron hitting shots early and instead cleaned a few things up while largely sticking with their game plan, and now they’re moving on.

Moving On

For the fourth straight season, Creighton has won a game in the NCAA Tournament. The Jays improved to 19-25 all-time in the Big Dance, including 7-3 over the past four years with another game coming on Saturday.

Besides McDermott, Kalkbrenner has been the common thread throughout that run as he became the second Bluejay ever to play in four NCAA Tournaments, joining Kyle Korver.

It’s worth taking a step back and appreciating what McDermott, his staff and his players have done to elevate the program to this point, especially in light of the blast from the past Saturday will bring.

No. 11 Oregon dispatched No. 6 South Carolina with relative ease in the second game of the session, which means McDermott will face off against his predecessor in Dana Altman, who spoke extensively after the Ducks’ win about the two programs to which he’s devoted 30 years of his life.

“You spend 16 years at a place and I’ve got great feelings about Creighton,” Altman said. “You can leave a place, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t love the place. And I’ve had 14 great years at Oregon, and I love this place. And when I’m done, I’ll feel the same way about Oregon as I do about Creighton. I’m the luckiest guy. I’ve coached 30 years at two great schools, and I’ve been supported and given everything we need to try to be successful. And so I’m so happy for Greg and Creighton and all their fans and the people that I know there. Greg’s done a tremendous job. They’ve got a tremendous program. I’m so happy for him. I follow them. My family’s all back in Nebraska. Oregon is 1, but I think Creighton is 1A. There’s not much separation. I still love the school.

“So, again, it’ll mean a lot. But it means a lot to those guys. It’s for my team. And like I said, it’s bittersweet because only one of us is going to move on. But we’ll battle our tails off. And like I said, Greg’s done a tremendous job. They’ve got a tremendous team, individual talent on that team is really special, so we’re going to have to play as good as we’ve ever played to get ’em.”

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