Creighton’s reserves watched from the bench for the first few minutes as their inspired Division II opponent diced up the unsuspecting CU defense.
Nine of Bemidji State’s first 13 shots went in. The Beavers drilled 3-pointers from deep, they dribbled by flat-footed defenders for easy layups and they worked their way to the foul line. They’d matched the largest lead by a Creighton opponent (10 points) before the second media timeout.
But the reason for the initial barrage was pretty glaring. The Jays, coming off a tough loss Saturday, needed an energy boost.
Once they got one, they seized control. Creighton ended the first half on a 23-4 run and outscored the Beavers by 37 in the second, winning the rare mid-February nonconference contest 94-46 Tuesday night.
“(We were) just trying to get the team going again,” freshman Jacob Epperson said. “Get them motivated, build the confidence back up.”
It wasn’t just Epperson. Seemingly every reserve helped Creighton (19-7) change the game’s trajectory.
Senior Tyler Clement was directing traffic and ripping passes around the perimeter. He drove into the paint for a bucket, too. Freshman Ty-Shon Alexander drew a charge on his first defensive possession . Freshman Mitch Ballock found Epperson for a 3-pointer, and then he drilled a mid-range shot of his own the next time down.
Epperson, who finished with 15 points, was setting screens and diving to the rim — he mishandled a pass but caught a lob for a layup. He finished off two alley-oop dunks in the second half.
Junior Kaleb Joseph stripped the ball from a Bemidji player and earned a couple of free throws. His free throw at the 4:51 mark gave CU a 31-30 lead, its first of the game.
“I thought the bench did a great job of kind of changing the tone of the game,” coach Greg McDermott said.
McDermott wasn’t surprised that his team fell into a bit of an early hole.
An underdog with nothing to lose — Tuesday went in the books as an exhibition for the Beavers — tends to perform its best in these settings.
But McDermott scheduled this game so that his team could stay in its midseason routine.
If it weren’t playing Tuesday, there would have been a full week between contests, and the Jays may have lost their edge. Division II foes don’t drag down your RPI, either, so McDermott figured a win over Bemidji State could serve as a springboard into the season’s stretch run.
Plus, after Saturday’s disappointment, CU needed to get out on the court again, according to McDermott.
The Jays lost 72-71 on a controversial foul call with 0.3 seconds left against No. 4 Xavier — and McDermott said the painful images rushed back into everybody’s minds as soon as they walked into the CenturyLink Center for a pregame shootaround Tuesday afternoon.
It appeared that the CU players were still stuck in that reflective daze at tipoff. They missed seven of their first nine shots. Eight of those were jumpers. McDermott had to burn a timeout when they fell behind 21-11 just after the 13-minute mark.
But they eventually settled in. Creighton outscored Bemidji State 72-16 over the final 28 minutes.
“I think it was really important that we get back on the floor and play a game, and prepare for a game,” McDermott said. “You play a game like this to keep a rhythm.”