For a couple weeks now, Creighton’s players have heard the message from their coaches that a little more hustle and a bit more grit could make all the difference in these competitive conference games.
Now the Bluejays have the evidence to prove it.
CU couldn’t hit 3-pointers, and its ball-handling mistakes kept the offense from operating efficiently, yet Creighton still managed to scrap its way to a 75-61 win over Butler (12-9, 3-5) before 18,069 on Pink-Out Friday at the CHI Health Center.
The Jays (12-8, 3-4) did it with tenacity, relentlessness and toughness.
“We see that the hustle plays and the defensive principles are what won us this game,” CU junior Davion Mintz said. “When you’re practicing that, it’s huge to see. The coaches were exactly right. What we did got us a win.”
Seemingly every practice for the last week has included a drill in which coach Greg McDermott either rolls the ball on the ground or tosses an errant shot off the rim. You dive or you rebound — or you face the consequences.
The players said they have ingrained some new habits as a result.
“Our thought, our game plan is always to be the toughest, no matter what,” sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander said. “It’s what we need to do from now on.”
There was Marcus Zegarowski refusing to give up on a ball headed out of bounds, catching up to it just in time and smacking it off a Butler player to retain possession for CU. Martin Krampelj nearly forced a steal and dove for the loose ball as it rolled out of bounds.
Mintz and Krampelj doubled-team Butler star Kamar Baldwin — the ball squirted away and the subsequent jump ball call gave it to CU late in the second half. Alexander dove to the floor, secured a steal and called a timeout to help the Bluejays seal the win late.
There were countless situations Friday when Creighton’s guys ripped away a rebound from an opponent — or fought for position and out-leaped a Bulldog to secure the board. Creighton’s undersized lineup ended up plus-11 on the glass — the best margin in a league game all year.
“They played really inspired,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said.
It was a good thing for the Bluejays that they did.
CU ended up making just seven of its 23 3-pointers. It’s the first time all year that Creighton has won a game when it has shot worse than 35 percent from 3-point range (previously 0-3). The Jays also had 18 turnovers.
Seemingly every time they threatened to create some substantial separation or put Butler away, the ball would get tossed out of bounds or a jump shot would clang off the rim.
Back-to-back layups in transition extended the Jays’ advantage to 53-42 with about 14 minutes left. Sophomore Mitch Ballock’s 3-pointer pushed CU’s lead to 12 points a few moments later.
But Creighton managed just three points over its next seven possessions. Butler hung around, trimming the deficit to 64-59 at the 3:23 mark.
That was as close as the Bulldogs got, though. They didn’t hit a field goal after that. CU clamped down defensively at the end — much like it had all game.
The Jays held Butler to 39.7 percent shooting and forced their normally sure-handed opponent into 13 turnovers. The Bulldogs’ 61 points were the lowest scored by a Creighton opponent in Big East play — conference teams had been averaging 86 points per game against the Jays.
Baldwin finished with 23 points, but he turned the ball over five times. Shooters Jordan Tucker, Sean McDermott and Paul Jorgensen combined to go 6-of-27 from the floor.
“We don’t win games like this very often this year, where it’s kind of a grind-it-out slugfest,” McDermott said. “We found a way to win an ugly game.”