It was one of the top objectives for Greg McDermott and Creighton entering Sunday’s matchup with top-seeded Gonzaga – an essential component to the blueprint for any team hoping to dethrone the unbeaten Bulldogs this season.
So, in theory, the fact that Corey Kispert had just two points, one shot attempt and virtually no daylight to get his 3-point shot off through the first 20 minutes meant all was going according to plan for the Bluejays in their quest to pull off one of the most impressive upsets in college basketball history.
Reality looked much different for the Jesuit school from Omaha and its 11th-year coach.
“The thing that jumps out at me is, Kispert had two points at halftime and we’re still down 10,” McDermott said in the wake of Gonzaga’s 83-65 blowout at Hinkle Fieldhouse. “And he’s so valuable to what they do and obviously we committed a lot to take him away.”
Kispert got loose anyway, scoring 10 points in the second half, and the Bulldogs extended a 10-point halftime lead into a 27-point advantage with 4:42 remaining. Gonzaga’s scorers came in waves and Kispert, the team’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game, was outdone by three teammates – Drew Timme (22 points), Andrew Nembhard (17) and Joel Ayayi (13) – in the Bulldogs’ 33rd consecutive win dating back to last season.
From Creighton’s vantage point, the country’s only undefeated team came in better than advertised and not only demonstrated it could score effectively at all three levels, but that eliminating Kispert is only one facet – a small one, it turns out – of extinguishing Gonzaga’s high-powered offense.
“There’s so many ways they can beat you,” McDermott said. “They’re elite scoring at the basket and at the rim. They had 50 points in the paint on us again today and that’s with us trying to take that part of their game away.”
Mark Few’s Bulldogs and McDermott’s Bluejays have faced each other three times since 2017. Gonzaga’s headliners are different than they were four years ago, but McDermott believes Few’s system and culture eclipse the talent of the individual players when examining the Bulldogs’ dominance. Sunday’s margin of victory was the largest in seven games between Gonzaga and Creighton.
“They play the game the right way, they’re incredibly unselfish and the names and some of the numbers have changed over the course of some of the years we’ve played them, but their efficiency and the unselfish nature with how they play the game has not changed,” McDermott said.
Playing the perfect game was the burden Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski and the Bluejays faced on Sunday – at least what a Sweet 16 matchup with the top-ranked Zags had to feel like. The junior guard was the game’s second-leading scorer, with 19 points on 3-of-7 shooting from distance, but a normally hot-shooting Creighton team went just 5 of 23 from the three-point line. Gonzaga’s efficiency from the field (59.6%) wiped out the 16 turnovers forced by the Bluejays.
“They play so fast and they’re so efficient with everything they do,” Zegarowski said. “There’s no lapses, you just can’t take – not even a play, you can’t take a second off versus them or else they’re going to make you pay. It’s tough to beat. That’s what it comes down to. It’s a tough team. It’s one of the best teams to ever play.”
Earlier in the week, McDermott called Gonzaga one of the best passing college basketball teams he’d seen. Sunday’s game only reinforced that belief, with the Bulldogs assisting on 23 of 34 field goals.
“I think it’s their balance and I’ve said it in preparation for this game, it’s one of the best passing teams I’ve seen one through five in that starting lineup in college basketball in a long time,” he said. “I just think when you make a mistake, they have the patience and the ability to make you pay for it because of their ability to pass.”
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