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No. 15 Creighton Men’s Basketball Topples Top-Ranked UConn

by Feb 21, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

Creighton Bluejays fans during a game against against the Connecticut Huskies at CHI Health Arena in Omaha, NE February 20th 2024. Photo by Eric Francis
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

No. 15 Creighton men’s basketball took down No. 1 UConn in impressive fashion, 85-66, in front of a sold-out, striped-out and raucous crowd at CHI Health Center Omaha Tuesday night.

Here are three takeaways from the historic night in Omaha.

Doing What’s Never Been Done

UConn rode a 14-game winning streak into Tuesday night, the longest active winning streak in the country and tied for the longest conference winning streak in Big East history. The Huskies were No. 1 in the AP and Coaches polls, and Creighton had come up short in each of its first six games against the nation’s top-ranked team, the latest defeat coming earlier this season against the Huskies in Storrs.

Not only did Creighton end that losing streak on Tuesday, the Bluejays left no doubt. They led by as much as 23 before settling in for a 19-point victory, the largest margin of victory over a No. 1 team since UMBC upset Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed.

“It means a lot just because we’d never done it,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “We had an opportunity there when they were ranked number one and we didn’t play very well. I know we played Villanova a couple times when they were number one, probably Gonzaga once. Anytime you do something nobody’s done, it’s something these guys will never forget. Every fan that was here tonight is never going to forget the enthusiasm and passion that was in that building tonight … That crowd was absolutely incredible. We’ve had some good ones; I think of senior night for Doug and Grant, Jahenns, Ethan, that was pretty special, but it was rocking in there tonight every bit as good as it was that night.”

Creighton Bluejays guard Trey Alexander #23 during a game against against the Connecticut Huskies at CHI Health Arena in Omaha, NE February 20th 2024. Photo by Eric Francis

As Francisco Farabello stole the ball and dribbled out the final seconds, fans swarmed onto the court to celebrate the moment with the team. It took two full minutes for people to fill the floor, and they remained there for some time after the final buzzer, singling along as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” blared from the sound system.

“I kind of knew that the game was over probably about a minute left, but I was just really excited because it was our first ever win over a number one team,” Jasen Green said. “Obviously I’ve only been here for two years, but I can just feel how important that is to everyone that’s here and everyone that’s been here and the people that have preceded me on the team and things like that. It was just a crazy feeling for me.”

The game got off to a rocky start. Turnovers and offensive rebounds buried Creighton on the road against UConn, and the Jays turned it over twice and gave up five second-chance points in the first two and a half minutes of round two. Creighton fell behind 11-3, but the Jays didn’t crumble.

Facing that eight-point deficit, Ryan Kalkbrenner grabbed an offensive rebound and found Trey Alexander, who had missed the initial shot, for a second look. That shot, a 3-pointer, went down — as did Creighton’s next eight. The Bluejays went more than seven minutes without missing a shot, turning the eight-point deficit into a six-point lead, and they continued to pour it on from there.

Creighton shot 57.1% from the field in the first half, including 8-of-15 from 3, and only turned it over one more time after the slow start.

“Obviously when you’re in your home gym, there’s just a feeling of confidence and the fans were a huge part of that tonight,” Steven Ashworth said. “They were definitely a home-court advantage. I think in that first half, we got on a little a little heater and a big thing for us coming into the second matchup against them was that we needed to rebound the ball and especially get live-ball rebounds so that we could try to push in transition. Too many times last game there were a lot of tip-outs and that was slowing our transition break.

“I think during that stretch we got a lot of stops in a row and then guys are so unselfish in transition and we made plays for each other, having 18 assists to only seven turnovers. So it was super fun, and it’s just an incredible experience to be in a place like CHI when you’re going on a run like that.”

The Jays took a 14-point lead into halftime then stretched it out to 21 before the under-16 timeout in the second half. It peaked at 23 before the Huskies made a run behind star point guard Tristen Newton, pulling within 10 with just under five minutes to play.

However, Creighton’s defense slammed the door shut as UConn went nearly three minutes before scoring again, and the Jays salted the game away at the foul line.

Each of Creighton’s four stars — Ashworth (20), Alexander (16), Kalkbrenner (15) and Baylor Scheierman (12) — scored in double figures and each of them took over at different points in the game. The others played a big role as well with Mason Miller and Jasen Green scoring eight points apiece (including Green’s first two career 3s) and Francisco Farabello tossing in two 3s as well. Creighton’s bench outscored UConn’s 14 to four.

The win over the Huskies slots in at the top of Creighton’s résumé, joining the victory over an Alabama team that sits at No. 5 in the NET rankings and sixth on KenPom. The Crimson Tide is 10-2 in SEC play as McDermott’s prediction that the win would age really well for Creighton has proven true.

“One game at a time, but we’re at this stage of the season where every win matters as you prepare for the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament and you want to position yourself as best you can,” McDermott said.

Playing for Clayton

On Monday, Ashworth said a lot of his conversations with the Creighton coaching staff during his recruitment centered on the opportunity to play against the best. They don’t come any better than the No. 1 team in the country.

“Opportunities like this are what all of us players grew up dreaming about, so super excited for tomorrow for sure,” Ashworth said.

On Tuesday, Ashworth notched his third 20-point game of the season to lead the Bluejays to victory against the top-ranked Huskies, and he did it with a special name adorning his wrist.

Creighton Bluejays guard Steven Ashworth #1 during a game against against the Connecticut Huskies at CHI Health Arena in Omaha, NE February 20th 2024. Photo by Eric Francis

“I do have to give a shout-out to my nephew,” Ashworth said. “He’s two and a half and was born with a brain aneurysm. My older brother and sister-in-law were hoping to beat this game but he needed an emergency surgery, and unexpectedly he’s going to be in the hospital for a few more weeks dealing with that. And so tonight I wrote his name, Clayton, on my wrist and our family is obviously having him in our hearts and minds a lot.

“And so to be able to have a game like this against a high-caliber team like that, just grateful to God for those experiences, those opportunities, and a big shout-out to my boy Clay. I know he’s going to keep fighting and he’s doing good.”

Ashworth was more than good on Tuesday, scoring 16 of his team-high 20 points in the first half while shooting 4-of-8 from 3 with a tough mid-range pull-up added in. Shots started rimming out in the second half, but his defense never slipped as he held UConn’s leading scorer, Cam Spencer, to six points on 3-of-8 shooting while snapping his streak of 26 straight games with a made 3-pointer.

Tuesday was Ashworth’s 11th straight game in double figures. He’s averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 39.3% from 3 during that span, but McDermott was focused primarily on his “incredible” defensive effort after the game.

“Spencer never stops, so that means Steven never stops, and then he’s got to run the team, he’s got to make shots,” McDermott said. “Once again, getting three assists and only one turnover against one of the best defenses in the country. He’s just, what you see is what you get. The guy doesn’t have bad days. He’s a great leader, he’s been a great fit for this group and I’m really proud of how he’s progressed. He fought through trying to figure out where are these shots coming from, what’s my role on this team need to be, but I don’t think his belief in himself ever wavered and I know my belief in him has never wavered.”

McDermott’s Milestone

The win was the 600th of McDermott’s distinguished career. He’s one of 17 active Division I men’s coaches to reach that milestone, and he’s reached that point with a .630 winning percentage.

Creighton Bluejays head coach Greg McDermott during a game against against the Connecticut Huskies at CHI Health Arena in Omaha, NE February 20th 2024. Photo by Eric Francis

“First of all, I’m old,” McDermott quipped about his 600th victory. “You’ve got to be in it a long time to coach enough games to do that, and I’ve coached at some good places and some really good players played for me. Obviously, this is one I’ll never forget because of how it transpired and how good the team was we were playing and one of the best crowds I think that we’ve ever had here.

“But as I said earlier, there’s a lot of guys that have played for me here that have put us in a position to win a lot of games, because of sacrifice. Not everybody wants to play the game the way that we play it, unselfish and selfless, but we’ve got a group here that’s pretty bought into that.”

Creighton improved to 20-7 with the win, giving the Jays nine straight 20-win seasons. They’ve also defeated a top-10 team in all nine of those seasons. Creighton has 18 wins over top-10 teams as a program, and 13 of them belong to McDermott teams including nine by 10 or more points.

The old cliché says you never want to be the person replacing a legend, but McDermott has bucked that trend. He followed a great coach in Dana Altman and has continued to elevate the program every step of the way, leading Creighton to new heights. Tuesday’s win was the cherry on top of what was already a strong case for the “best coach in program history” title, and now that he has it, I don’t think there’s much of an argument for anybody else.

Enjoy the win, Creighton fans, and appreciate what Greg McDermott has built in Omaha.

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