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Creighton’s Run Ends with Sweet 16 Loss to Tennessee

by Mar 30, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

Creighton’s Run Ends with Sweet 16 Loss to Tennessee
Photo Credit: Camren Clouthier

The Creighton men’s basketball team saw its NCAA Tournament run come to an end on Friday night as the third-seeded Bluejays fell 82-75 to No. 2 Tennessee in Detroit.

The Bluejays finished 25-10 overall after their second-straight Sweet 16 apperance, matching the program’s second-highest win total of the Big East era.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished this year to get back on this stage,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “These guys have been selfless every step of the way. They’ve been absolutely a joy to coach. You hate for that to be over, and I hope, once the hurt subsides, they can look in the mirror and understand what they’ve accomplished … It’s sad that it’s over, but, man was it fun while it happened.”

Here are three takeaways from the loss.

Highs and Lows

Friday’s game was an emotional roller-coaster of a viewing experience if you were a Creighton fan. We saw the best and the worst of this team contained within those 40 minutes.

The worst is what ultimately cost the Jays the game. For long stretches, Creighton had no answer for Tennessee’s physicality on defense. The officials apparently decided they were going to let the teams play to an extreme degree, and the Volunteers took advantage to gum up Creighton’s offense.

Nearly across the board, the Jays had a tough time even getting open, let alone creating an advantage in any way. In the first half, Creighton went through a stretch of 5:45 of game time with two points. Tennessee nearly turned the game into a blowout early in the second half as Creighton went 5:25 without a point during an 18-0 Volunteer run. Finally, after the Jays found themselves well within striking distance at 68-64 with just over four minutes to play, they went cold again with a 3:19 drought as Tennessee stretched the lead back out to nine.

That’s 14:29 of game time that included just two Bluejay points; hard to keep up with a team as talented as Tennessee when that happens. Additionally, their turnovers and misses shots fueled Tennessee’s offense as the Volunteers scored 10 points off turnovers and 18 fast-break points. This roster’s biggest weakness was its lack of athleticism and physicality, and that showed up in a big way during these scoring droughts.

Of course, the Jays finished with 75 points, meaning they scored at a 2.9 points-per-minute clip the rest of the game. Expand that out to a full game and that’s 114 points. The Jays knocked down 11 3s at a blistering 47.8% clip. They showed their resiliency by responding to that 18-0 run with a 20-7 run of their own to get right back in the game and give themselves a chance down the stretch. We saw dunks and blocks from Ryan Kalkbrenner, Baylor Scheierman going off, Steven Ashworth stepping up and Jasen Green making his presence felt.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Trey Alexander and Kalkbrenner in particular seemed to struggle with Tennessee’s physicality. Alexander shot 1-for-10 from the field before hitting his last two 3s after the outcome was no longer in doubt. Kalkbrenner shot 2-for-7 and grabbed one rebound in the second half after a strong first half. For all the work those two have put in and the growth they’ve made throughout their careers, it’s unfortunate to see them play like that in what could have been their last game in Creighton uniforms.

“Tennessee does a good job of upsetting your rhythm,” McDermott said. “[Zakai] Zeigler is such an elite on-ball defender that it upsets your timing of what you’re trying to do. As you saw, we tried to have some other guys initiate offense at times. While they had [Santiago Vescovi] not play, that put [Jahmai] Mashack in the game more, and he disrupts things much like Zeigler does. So he ended up on Trey to start the game, Zeigler on Steven, and it was hard to really initiate any offense. I thought, once we settled in, we got some decent shots. We got it to Kalk 12 times down there. He missed a few he normally makes.

“It’s a make shot, miss shot game. Tennessee late in the year against Mississippi State in the conference tournament didn’t shoot it well. They didn’t shoot it well against Texas. They made shots tonight. That’s what it comes down to.”

All-American Shootout

The headline matchup going into the game was the battle between Tennessee first-team All-American Dalton Knecht and Creighton third-team All-American Baylor Scheierman. Both players were lightly recruited out of high school, made the most of the opportunities they did get then transferred up to high-majors and took their games to a new level as fifth-year seniors.

The battle certainly lived up to the hype on Friday night.

Knecht’s team came out on top, and he hit some massive shots to make that happen. He led the Volunteers with 26 points while also grabbing six rebounds and dishing out five assists. However, it also took him 25 shooting possessions to score those 26 points as the Jays made him work for everything he got — and Scheierman was often the one responsible for that.

The Aurora native also dropped 25 points in his final game as a Bluejay, doing so on 21 shooting possessions with four 3-points and a three-point play. He added six boards and two assists and at times seemed like the only Bluejay willing to go at the Tennessee pressure. Defensively, he matched up with Knecht from the opening tip and was on him more than anyone else.

“To exert the energy he had to exert to guard Knecht, it’s incredible,” McDermott said. “Dalton wasn’t guarding him. So Baylor had double duty because we needed him to be a presence offensively for us, and we needed him to try to slow him down, and he did a great job. He hit one 3 in transition where he got loose, he hit one on the triangle-and-two cutting left, and the other I think he hit it on Trey along the baseline. Baylor didn’t give up a 3 to a first team All-American.

“It was clear there were two All-Americans tonight on the floor.”

What Scheierman accomplished in his two years as a Bluejay and the way he turned himself from quality Big East player in year one to one of the best in the country in year two has earned him a special place in Creighton history.

YouTube video

The End of the Road

Friday’s loss marked the end of perhaps the most successful era in Creighton basketball history. That era includes a .684 Big East regular-season winning percentage, four NCAA Tournament berths, three trips to the Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight appearance.

Scheierman and Francisco Farabello have exhausted their eligibility. Alexander, Kalkbrenner and Ashworth all have decisions to make (though Ashworth seems much more likely to return than the other two). In all likelihood, next year’s roster will look significantly different, and that reality makes the loss hurt all that much more.

“We had big goals going into the year, and we didn’t necessarily accomplish everything we set out to do,” Scheierman said. “I’m obviously disappointed in the loss, but more sad about the fact that I’ll never be able to put on this Creighton uniform again. I’ll never be able to play with this group of guys, and I’ll never be able to play for Coach Mac again. Really what’s going through my mind right now is the reality that it’s over for me. It’s just been an absolute blessing to be able put on this uniform and play for Coach Mac and play for these guys.”

Even so, Creighton was one of 16 out of 362 teams that earned the right to play into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Jays racked up 25 wins, earned a second-place finish in the Big East (including its first win over the top-ranked team in the country) and tied the program record for highest seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Jays went toe to toe with a top-10 team and just came up a little short.

The time for deep reflection on what this group accomplished will come in time, but for the coaching staff, next season begins now. This group has established an incredibly high standard for the program, and McDermott’s next challenge is to find the next group that can live up to that standard — and perhaps push it even higher.

“It’s been an incredible four-year run that Kalk is the one guy that’s been part of that all four years,” McDermott said. “Our program is in a position, and we’re supported by the institution and our department in a way that we need to continue to be successful. We tell our guys to move to the next play all the time. While we’re going to be disappointed about this loss, my staff and I are going to get to work and try to put together a group that can get back to this point.”

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