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No. 18 Bluejays Fall at No. 1 UConn as Huskies Dominate Glass, Turnovers

by Jan 17, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

No. 18 Bluejays Fall at No. 1 UConn as Huskies Dominate Glass, Turnovers
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The UConn Huskies showed why they’ve risen to the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll on Wednesday night by dispatching No. 18 Creighton 62-48 at Gampel Pavilion.

The Huskies led by as much as 22 at one point before Creighton made a late run to make the final score look a bit more respectable. The Bluejays saw their winning streak end at four games as they fell to 13-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play.

Here are three takeaways from the loss.

Stagnant in Storrs

Creighton matched its season-low for points, and it took a late 18-6 run to even get to that point. What we saw is the worst 20 or so minutes of offensive basketball I’ve seen from a Creighton team this season, and maybe ever (and I was in Kansas City for the loss to Colorado State back in November).

At the 6:55 mark of the first half, Creighton trailed 23-19 following a Francisco Farabello transition 3. At the 7:15 mark of the second half, the Jays trailed 52-30. In the 19:39 in between, Creighton scored 11 points on 3-of-24 from the field (1-of-12 from 3) and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line with nine turnovers. No team can survive a stretch of ineptitude like that.

“The difference between the top and eighth or ninth place is razor-thin,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “It’s execution, it’s shot-making, it’s being disciplined enough to play for 40 minutes. We had stretches where we played OK and stretches where our offense was anemic, and that’s not going to win in this league.”

We’ve seen in the past when teams have played aggressive, physical, in-your-face defense that Creighton has had a tough time countering it to create good looks. Wednesday might have been the biggest example of that yet. The Huskies hard-hedged ball screens, they hounded Creighton’s guards off the ball, they switched when it made sense and they stayed between Creighton and the basket most of the night. When the Jays did get in the paint, UConn recorded six blocks (though one of them was on a 3-pointer).

With the aggressive on-ball defense and the ball-handlers’ inability to win one-on-one, Creighton had to find a different way to score with more off-ball movement and screening. But all we saw was the same looping drives away from contact, the ball-handler picking up his dribble in a tough spot with no one cutting repeatedly and the same passes to guys who hadn’t created separation.

During one of the huddles in the first half captured by FS1’s cameras, McDermott told his team: “You’ve got to get open like your life depends on it.” They never did.

Instead, we saw the same stagnant offense with the ball-handler fighting for his life while four others stood and watched. We saw the same pick-and-rolls without a counter for the hedges. And we saw the same ice-cold shooting that has reared its head far too often this season.

Creighton shot 6-of-26 from 3 (23.1%). The Jays only attempted six free throws and they only scored 20 points in the paint, missing more layups than they converted (7-of-16).

“We didn’t make any shots, especially early to loosen it up,” McDermott said. “They were aggressive when Kalkbrenner touched it, getting it out of there. But they were active. They’ve got a lot of a lot of length and they’re really good defensive team.”

Recipe for Failure

Ryan Kalkbrenner was far and away Creighton’s best and most efficient player, yet he attempted as many shots as he blocked (five of each). Kalkbrenner finished with 11 points on 4-of-5 from the field (1-2 from 3) and 2-of-2 from the foul line, eight rebounds, six stocks and just one turnover in 35 minutes.

Steven Ashworth (14 points), Baylor Scheierman (12) and Trey Alexander (six) combined for 32 points on 12-of-38 shooting with seven giveaways. Those three all taking more than twice as many shot attempts as Kalkbrenner on a night when 3s weren’t falling is rarely going to lead to victory against any team with a pulse.

Creighton has to find a way to keep Kalkbrenner involved, be it schematic changes from the coaches or the guards on the floor doing a better job of handling pressure and getting the ball inside on post entries and pick-and-roll feeds. Hoping 3s eventually fall isn’t a viable strategy against teams that make it tough to get the ball inside. Creighton can’t let the opposition dictate terms of play to the degree that we saw on Wednesday night.

On the other end, 7-foot-2 sophomore Donovan Clingan made his return after a five-game absence, logging 16 minutes. He totaled six points on 3-of-8 shooting while struggling to deal with Kalkbrenner. Clingan’s only bucket one-on-one against the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year came on a play where Kalkbrenner swatted his first shot right back into his hands for a put-back. Kalkbrenner was a big reason why UConn shot just 11-of-28 on layups.

The box score was pretty ugly for Creighton nearly across the board, but Kalkbrenner only attempting five shots perhaps stands out even more than all of the other ugly statistics.

Not Tough Enough

Creighton’s work on the defensive glass against St. John’s was the key to its victory. The Red Storm was a top-five team nationally in offensive rebound rate and Creighton limited the Johnnies to 12 offensive rebounds and 14 second-chances points — just one board and two more points than Creighton managed.

Similarly, UConn is a great offensive rebounding team. The Huskies were 12th nationally in offensive rebounding rate heading into the game. Creighton did not hang in nearly as well, and that was as big a reason as any for the blowout.

Creighton’s first-shot defense was more than good enough to give it a shot. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t complete the play. Creighton gave up four offensive rebounds before the first media timeout of the game and 12 total in the first half. The Huskies turned those second chances into 11 points, which happened to be their lead at the break.

It didn’t get much better in the second half. UConn finished with 21 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points — 14 more than Creighton in a 14-point victory.

On one play, UConn’s Tristen Newton air-balled a heat check 3. Creighton’s defenders held their ground, waiting for it to go out of bounds, while UConn’s Hassan Diarra hustled after it and dove out of bounds to save it to a teammate. It led to a Cam Spencer pull-up. On a day when you can’t throw it on the ocean, you can’t afford to give up points on a possession like that. Creighton did. Too often, the Jays didn’t do their work early by finding a body and checking out, and that meant they had to fight for their lives with the ball in the air, a battle they too often lost.

“We’re not we’re not necessarily built at a couple positions to win those one-on-one battles, but it’s something we’ve talked about for three days, you have to figure out a way to win those,” McDermott said. “If you get [Alex] Karaban one-on-one on a block-out, you’ve got to find a way to get him out of there. Same thing, [Stephon] Castle got in there a couple times. You’ve got to go to them. If you let them come to you, you’re going to lose those battles around the rim.”

On a few of those offensive rebounds for UConn, Creighton players had the ball in their hands and couldn’t squeeze it. On the other end, three of their defensive boards were knocked out of bounds by the Huskies, which meant Creighton didn’t get a chance to run off the stop.

Additionally, Creighton turned the ball over 14 times, which UConn converted into 15 points on the other end (Creighton only scored four). The Huskies dominated extra-possession points, which is what you have to do to win a game when you shoot 34.6% from the field like the Huskies did.

“We weren’t very good,” McDermott said. “UConn had almost everything to do with that. I thought they really knocked us out of our rhythm offensively. Our first-shot defense was really good. Like the games we played against them last year, they were really two tough, hard-nosed defensive teams that tried to take away what the other team does well, and I thought we did a decent job of that, but we couldn’t keep them off the glass. If you let this team get on the glass and you let them get out — when you turn it over, a live-ball turnover, they’re going to score; they’re just elite at that.”

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