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No. 22 Creighton Men’s Basketball Wins “Mud Fight” with St. John’s

by Jan 13, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

No. 22 Creighton Men’s Basketball Wins “Mud Fight” with St. John’s
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

No. 22 Creighton men’s basketball survived a 66-65 rock fight with St. John’s on Saturday to improve to 13-4 and 4-2 in Big East play.

The sub-zero temperatures and snow-packed roads impacted the size of the crowd, but players and coaches alike praised the energy in the building down the stretch as Creighton dug itself out of a nine-point hole then held on at the end as the Red Storm got a couple looks before the buzzer.

Here are three takeaways from the victory.

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Closing Time

The game featured seven ties and 18 lead changes. St. John’s led by as much as nine while Creighton’s largest advantage was seven. In such a back-and-forth game, coming down to the final few possessions was a fitting end.

Big man Joel Soriano gave St. John’s its final lead, 65-64, on a bucket inside with 2 minutes to play.

The teams traded stops from there as Chris Ledlum blocked a Baylor Scheierman fadeaway, then Nahiem Alleyne missed a corner jumper. Scheierman missed a transition 3 then Ryan Kalkbrenner swatted a Daniss Jenkins layup and corralled the rebound.

With less than 30 seconds to play, Creighton worked the ball around and got it into Trey Alexander’s hands. He attacked the baseline, got a foot in the paint then stepped back for the mid-range jumper he’s hit so many times this season.

The shot missed, catching the heel of the rim and bouncing back toward the free-throw line. Jenkins was the first one there, but Kalkbrenner and Scheierman both dove at it as well and knocked the ball out beyond the 3-point line, where Francisco Farabello chased it down.

Farabello shoveled it to Steven Ashworth who immediately fired it to Alexander in the far corner. The junior guard blew by a scrambling Soriano on the perimeter and got all the way to the rim, forcing a St. John’s foul.

Alexander had a rough offensive game, shooting 3-for-14 from the field without a free-throw attempt to that point. However, he stepped to the line with 12.3 to play and hit both to put Creighton up by one.

Creighton opted to use one of its two fouls to give on the other end, forcing St. John’s to run an in-bound play with 5.4 on the clock. Jenkins passed the ball into Soriano then followed for a handoff, but Kalkbrenner stepped up and contested the shot. Ledlum tipped the rebound back out to Jordan Dingle, who caught and fired mid-air just before the buzzer, but it didn’t go down.

Creighton secured the victory despite shooting just 6-of-27 (22.2%) from 3, with the vast majority of them really good looks. Defensively, Creighton battled one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in the country to a near draw in that area, finishing minus-two in second-chance points (14-12) and minus-one in offensive caroms (12-11).

“We’ve often been accused of not being able to win a mud fight, and today we did,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “We didn’t shoot it well. I really felt that the first 12-minute timeout, the first half, I felt we should be up 20 or 22-6. We had great looks at the basket. I thought our pace in transition and the quarter-court was really good. We just missed a lot of open shots.

“Second half, we didn’t get a lot open shots, and that’s credit to St John’s. They cranked up the physicality and fortunately, we were able to withstand that and get to the free-throw line and make some free throws and when it counted, and then executed the late game — foul and then decided not to at the end – really, really well. So proud of the guys because we certainly weren’t at our best offensively today, but that also had a lot to do with St. John’s.”

Down, But Not Out

The first half saw a series of runs and scoring droughts. Creighton jumped out a 10-4 lead thanks to some terrific defense. St. John’s answered with a 10-0 run as Creighton missed seven straight shots. Later, the Jays surged back in front with a 10-2 spurt — three straight buckets inside, including an and-one, before an open catch-and-shoot 3 from Ashworth. Creighton took a five-point lead into halftime after all that.

St. John’s stepped up its defensive intensity in the second half to prevent Creighton from pulling away, and things began to unravel a bit midway through the half. Mason Miller threw down his first career dunk to put the Jays up 45-42 at the 15-minute mark, and more than five minutes passed before Creighton’s next bucket.

The Red Storm put together a 14-2 run to build a 56-47 lead with nine and a half to play. St John’s scored 10 straight on layups and pull-up jumpers before Scheierman caught the ball inside and scored, finishing through an apparent slap that went uncalled. He voiced his displeasure at the no-call and received what he said was his first career technical.

Alleyne hit both shots then Zuby Ejiofor scored in the post to make it a four-point trip down the floor.

The technical call fired up the crowd, and the Jays fed off that energy. Creighton put together a 12-2 run to regain the lead that featured nothing but free throws and shots at the rim, including a steal and score from Farabello and an alley-oop to Kalkbrenner.

“That’s big-time,” Kalkbrenner said. “Obviously with the home crowd, it’s a little easier to respond to something like that, and they were great tonight giving us energy. But anytime that teams go on a run and that gets capped off by tech or whatnot, obviously you’re going to face a little adversity, but this team’s got full confidence in just our ability to stay with our plan, stay with our approach and I knew once we got back out there after the tech we were going to turn it around.”

On a day when perimeter shots weren’t falling, the Jays found a way to handle the Red Storm’s physically and find a way to get themselves back in the game, setting the stage for the close finish.

Kalkbrenner’s Impact

Kalkbrenner thoroughly dominated his match-up with productive Providence big man Josh Oduro in Creighton’s win over the Friars last week, and doing so again against the Big East’s leading rebounder in Soriano was certainly a key heading into Saturday.

Creighton’s 7-footer stepped up to the plate once again.

Kalkbrenner finished with a game-high 18 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and an assist for a three-point play. He limited Soriano to four points on seven shooting possessions in the first half with his only field goal coming in transition on a switch.

The Red Storm got Soriano more involved in the second half early by attacking Creighton’s other defenders and forcing Kalkbrenner into help situations, creating easier opportunities for Soriano. He might have scored one-on-one against Kalkbrenner once, maybe twice all night, finishing with 13 points on 12 shooting possessions.

“The Big East has a lot of really good big men,” Kalkbrenner said. “As basketball player, that’s really exciting; you always want to go play against really good players. So I definitely take a lot of pride in it, especially when bigs are talented like Joel Soriano and whatnot. Other teams might have to come up with defensive schemes; I take pride in just letting me guard him and we don’t do anything special or put anyone else in a bad spot because we have to come double or whatnot. So that’s there’s some I definitely take a lot of pride in.”

However, he did take advantage of Kalkbrenner on the offensive glass a few times, which came after an extended stint on the bench as Ejiofor, the back-up, gave St. John’s some good minutes. Meanwhile, Kalkbrenner played all but 96 seconds.

McDermott tried Jasen Green in the first half then went back to Fredrick King in the second, but neither hit the one-minute mark on the floor before McDermott went back to Kalkbrenner. Midway through the second half, Kalkbrenner got fouled on a desperation 3-pointer and missed all three attempts. It’s hard not to wonder what role fatigue might have played in that, especially with everything Creighton is asking him to do when he’s on the court (which included setting screens in the backcourt against the Red Storm’s full-court pressure then running to get into position on offense).

One of the key goals over the second half of conference play has to be finding a solution for when Kalkbrenner isn’t on the floor, but for now, he’s rounded into form as one of the most impactful players in the Big East, and the country.

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