KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Creighton knew it wasn’t going to be able to spend the entire season playing exactly the way it wanted to, willfully ratcheting up the game’s tempo so its own playmakers could show their scoring prowess.
Someone was going to slow the pace way down. And that’s what Baylor did Tuesday.
The Bears (5-0) walked the ball up the court, and their players stood around as their point guard used the first few seconds of the shot clock to direct traffic. Their zone defense forced CU to make multiple passes as it looked for an opening, extending possessions beyond what is typical for the fast-paced Jays. The team that dropped 100 one night earlier even had a seven-minute scoring drought after halftime.
It was exactly the blueprint No. 22 Baylor had envisioned.
The Jays (4-1) saw their double-digit second-half lead trickle away and the Bears seized control of the action late, spoiling Creighton’s bid for a third-straight victory over a top 25 team. CU fell 65-59 in the Hall of Fame Classic championship game — unable to find enough offense for the first time this year.
“Congrats to Baylor. They made it a rock fight,” coach Greg McDermott said. “And for 36 or 37 minutes, we won the rock fight. We just couldn’t finish it.”
The defeat will be one that stings for a while with these Jays, who’d knocked off then-No. 20 Northwestern last week and defeated No. 23 UCLA Monday in a couple shootouts.
But they essentially had displayed a new set of winning traits that seemed to have them positioned for yet another early season statement victory Tuesday.
» They jumped in front 6-5 at the 16-minute mark in the first half and stretched their advantage to as many as 12 points despite never really finding their perimeter stroke.
» They crafted a well-designed defensive plan in about 24 hours, and carried out almost every aspect of it. One walkthrough and one film session — that’s all the players got, according to McDermott. And he said it was maybe the finest short-turnaround performance he’s seen on that end of the floor from any of his teams.
» Plus, despite minimal experience and limited depth in the frontcourt, CU held its own inside for much of the game, only getting out-rebounded by four and scoring just eight fewer points in the paint.
The Bears start three players who are 6-foot-9 or taller. They bring a 6-foot-8 center off the bench. Redshirt freshmen guard Mark Vital, at 230 pounds, is built like a running back. So is guard King McClure.
“It wasn’t because of a lack of effort,” McDermott said. “Our guys competed.”
But after artfully and cleverly attacking Baylor’s zone before halftime — CU had 10 assists on 13 made shots — the Jays just couldn’t settle in.
The Bears did make some adjustments. They appeared to operate mostly out of a 1-3-1 look in the second half, giving away some space to CU’s bigs while denying driving lanes to the guards.
McDermott’s initial reaction after the game, though, was that Creighton dissected the zone well enough to win.
“I thought a lot of the looks were really good looks,” he said. “The last thing I’m going to do is tell my shooters to quit shooting. It’ll never happen.”
But the shots didn’t fall. In the final 18 minutes of the game, the Jays missed 15 consecutive 3-pointers before freshman Mitch Ballock’s corner 3 fell in during the final seconds.
That bucket came just after the officials had whistled a CU player for a late foul — and senior Marcus Foster was able only to pull his jersey over his head in frustration as he walked to the other end of the court. He’d missed three 3-pointers in the final three minutes, although each of the shots appeared to be pretty well contested.
It was the story of the night for the Jays, and one that felt all too familiar for those who’ve followed this CU program closely.
The last time the two teams met — in the 2014 NCAA tournament — the result was disastrous for Creighton’s highly proficient offense. The Jays, led by Doug McDermott and several other key seniors, had a landmark season — but they couldn’t match Baylor’s physicality and length in an 85-55 defeat. The Bears’ zone gave the nation’s best collection of 3-point shooters all kinds of fits (they were 5-of-24 from 3-point range).
It’s a different group of Jays now, though.
And for stretches in the first half, it looked like their upgraded athleticism had them well positioned to write a different script.
But they ended up making just 34.4 percent of their field goal attempts Tuesday — CU’s worst shooting performance in almost two years.
After taking a 40-28 lead on junior Khyri Thomas’ 3-pointer at the 18-minute mark of the second half, Creighton missed its next nine shots. Seven of those were from behind the arc. It went more than seven minutes without points, allowing Baylor to trim the deficit to 40-38 during that span.
Then the Bears made the key plays late.
McClure put Baylor in front 52-50 with a driving layup with 3:35 left. Reserve big man Terry Maston gave the Bears the lead for good at 55-52 when he hit a 3-pointer — he was 1-for-9 from long-range in his four-year Baylor career before burying that shot.
Two post buckets for the Bears on their next two trips down the floor put the game away.
“We’ve just got to want it more when it comes down to the last couple seconds,” Thomas said.