In tough road environment, Zags show Creighton still has work to do

In tough road environment, Zags show Creighton still has work to do
Creighton guard Marcus Foster shoots against Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. (The Associated Press)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Tipoff was still more than 15 minutes away Friday night and Marcus Foster couldn’t help but smile.

He’d just missed a 3-pointer from the corner during warmups — and the students standing on the first row of bleachers just about a foot off the sideline were letting him have it. They pointed and screamed.

You typically hear from players in this sport that they find themselves ignoring the crowd — whether those fans are jeering or cheering. But here? Where more than 1,000 students are packed along the length of the floor — and they jump, stomp, yell, clap, chant and sing for several minutes before the game even begins inside a 6,000-seat gymnasium that just seems to amplify the noise?

Yeah, you just have to embrace it.

And Creighton certainly embraced it.

The Jays were composed and poised from the start, never trailing in the first 20 minutes. They just couldn’t sustain it.

Gonzaga was every bit as formidable as CU expected, and the Zags showed their strength after halftime in a 91-74 victory.

It was just one contest in a long season. But the exhilarating Top 25 showdown between two programs that used to be stuck in mid-major purgatory did serve as a reminder for CU of what it wants to become.

Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen watched it all unfold from the stands.

“They are a benchmark for a lot of us,” he said before the game.

You can’t copy and paste what Gonzaga’s built. But the blueprint can be re-created — particularly now that the Jays have jumped to the Big East and started making more consistent waves on the national scene.

CU earned its highest-ever NCAA tournament seed three years ago. It reached its highest ranking in the AP poll last season. More than half of the program’s wins over ranked opponents have come in the last five seasons.

But it’s not yet at Gonzaga’s level.

Creighton shut down the Bulldogs’ top two scoring options. One of Gonzaga’s staters, Corey Kispert, was sidelined with a foot injury. But senior point guard Silas Melson made all five of his shots from the floor in the first half, scoring 15 points. Then redshirt freshman Zach Norvell took over after the break — pouring in a career-high 21 points all in the second half. Sophomore big man Killian Tillie had 22 of his own.

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” coach Greg McDermott said this week.

And it certainly took time to build.

The Zags became America’s favorite Cinderella story. In 1999. And 2000. And 2001.

They reached an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s, essentially turning the NCAA tournament into a brand-boosting billboard for a school that hadn’t registered on the national college basketball radar prior to that. They were March regulars from that point on (the streak is up to 19 straight berths now). And even though success was limited — from 2002 to 2014, Gonzaga went 11-13 in NCAA games — the program had already carved out a reputation for itself.

But the key factor, at least in the eyes of Bulldog great John Stockton, was that the Zags never deviated from their identity. Credit coach Mark Few for that, Stockton told The World-Herald recently.

There weren’t any shortcuts. No bypass routes. Gonzaga had to build, ever so gradually.

“They haven’t tried to keep up with the Joneses by doing what the Joneses do,” said Stockton, who played for the Zags and whose son David played there, too. “They’re taking steps. Each kid comes and makes his contribution to the overall history.

“We’re late-comers (on the college basketball scene) — but we’re coming.”

Few conveyed a similar sentiment after he sat down at a table to address the media last March, right after his team had clinched the program’s first Final Four berth. With a brand new cap on his head and a regional championship T-shirt fitted over his light blue button-down, Few took a deep breath.

“It’s been a long, hard journey to get this program here,” he said.

Creighton hopes to follow a similar path.

But it has work to do. Friday was evidence of that.

The Jays, despite controlling the first half and leading by seven at the break, failed to score for the first five minutes after halftime. There were five turnovers and five missed shots. The Zags took advantage, going on a 16-2 run to seize control.

CU didn’t have the firepower to keep up once Gonzaga solved Creighton’s extended man-to-man defensive strategy and began pouring in the points. The Zags shot 62.1 percent after halftime.

The Bulldogs’ perfectly crafted mix of talent — a blend of international standouts, underappreciated transfers and talented recruits — actually does resemble Creighton’s makeup a bit.

When you’re not considered a traditional blue blood or when you don’t have an excess of funds left over from football TV deals, you have to get creative in your attempts to accumulate talent. Rasmussen said he thought Gonzaga was “ahead of the curve” with its ability to find different ways to bring in skilled players.

McDermott noted that, too.

“They do what they do and have got a good mix of four-year players, and transfers, and kids from overseas,” he said. “And they’ve been able to have a culture where they still play together and still play for each other.”

Now the Jays must work to keep building as well.

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