Jays play with urgency down the stretch to seal big win over St. John’s

Jays play with urgency down the stretch to seal big win over St. John’s
Creighton's Marcus Foster looks to pass as St. John's Bashir Ahmed defends in the first half of their game. (World-Herald News Service)

The Bluejays couldn’t hear each other. They were crouching down in their defensive stances and screaming out instructions. Gesturing, too. Martin Krampelj was stomping his foot on the court to signal a call.

But that’s exactly how they like it.

They were flexing, shouting and celebrating right along with the CenturyLink Center’s 16,167-patron crowd, which roared for every big second-half bucket and every defensive effort play during the decisive Creighton run that changed the course of Wednesday’s 78-71 win over St. John’s.

The Jays used an 18-2 spurt to turn a 10-point deficit into a 64-58 advantage. They still needed some late-game heroics to seal it — junior Khyri Thomas padded a two-point lead with a corner 3-pointer in the final seconds — but their sustained barrage midway through the second half put them in position for their second straight league win.

“We got it done in the second half,” senior Marcus Foster said.

It started with defense.

St. John’s, fueled by a 14-0 run during the final four minutes before halftime, was slicing CU up. The Johnnies (10-5, 0-3) scored on five of their first seven possessions out of the break, too, jumping ahead 54-44 on sophomore Justin Simon’s ferocious one-handed dunk.

But the Jays (12-3, 2-1) abruptly altered their tactics. They started crowding Simon more. They assigned their power forward (most often Ronnie Harrell) to the Red Storm’s 6-foot-11 center, Tariq Owens — which allowed CU to switch whenever St. John’s set a perimeter ball screen.

And then they simply turned it up. Their energy, their effort, their drive.

“The first half was lackadaisical,” Thomas said. “Everybody was going through the motions. I’m like, ‘We can’t have that. We’re better than this.’ … Everybody started putting the pieces together.”

Creighton’s changes certainly made a difference.

Over a span of 14 consecutive possessions, St. John’s managed just two points. It missed 11 of its 12 field-goal attempts during that stretch — 10 of which were jump shots.

The Jays made sure to take advantage on the other end. It was Krampelj, the rapidly emerging sophomore forward, recognizing a couple of openings and driving to the dish. His teammates twice found him for dunks, both of which brought the crowd to its feet. Senior Marcus Foster nailed a 3-pointer and freshman Ty-Shon Alexander knocked down two free throws on the ensuing possession, giving CU a six-point lead with eight minutes left.

“Fortunately we had the bigger run in the middle of that second half than they had at any point in the game, and that really was the difference,” coach Greg McDermott said.

It took Creighton until the final minute before it could put St. John’s away, though.

The CU miscues that helped spark the Johnnies before halftime began to surface again down the stretch. The Red Storm had an 18-2 advantage in fast-break points — largely because of its 24-8 edge in points off turnovers.

SJU’s switch to a zone defense in the final three minutes helped lead to two live-ball giveaways, and the Johnnies converted both of them into easy buckets.

Then the drama began.

With Creighton clinging to a 73-71 lead in the final minute, Krampelj raced from one end of the court to the other — just getting his fingertips on a high-arching layup attempt and blocking away the potential game-tying shot. It was “maybe the play of the game,” McDermott said.

Alexander, an 80 percent free-throw shooter, then failed to convert the front end of a one-and-one. But so did St. John’s junior Marvin Clark, who’d only missed two of his 31 foul shots on the year before that moment.

So CU had another chance to seal it. And Thomas, off a pass from Foster, hit the dagger.

“It felt good leaving my hand,” he said.

His shot did bounce at least twice on the rim. It skipped off the backboard, too. But it ultimately fell through the net, putting the Jays ahead 76-71 with 15 seconds left. Harrell’s two free throws finished it off.

It was a game Creighton’s players told one another throughout that they couldn’t afford to drop — reminded of late collapses against Seton Hall, Baylor and Gonzaga — and the heightened urgency was apparent down the stretch.

Krampelj was jubilantly hanging on the rim after an and-one dunk, swinging around with a smile on his face before dropping down, strutting around and shouting, “Let’s go!”

Foster, after more than a few whistles, was raising both arms as he glared confidently at the fans, imploring for extra noise. Alexander did the same near midcourt. The CU bench players were leaping out of their seats, waving towels and shouting for more.

They couldn’t let Wednesday’s game slip away.

“It was amazing,” Foster said. “To hear the crowd and not be able to communicate with your teammates (because of the noise) — those are the games you really want.”

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