Khyri Thomas, Jays sprint to early lead, hold off Butler down the stretch

Khyri Thomas, Jays sprint to early lead, hold off Butler down the stretch
Creighton's Khyri Thomas goes in for a one-handed dunk over Butler's Aaron Thompson. (World-Herald News Service)

Creighton used high-flying dunks and smooth-looking layups and swished-in 3-pointers to electrify the crowd and build a lead, but when the Jays huddled up late Tuesday night they were talking about their defense.

They’d been shredded by a resilient Butler squad for much of the second half. The legs were giving out. Their coach had pleaded for several minutes to get his guys to produce one more surge — to perhaps seal the win — but it never came.

So CU needed a stop.

Three, actually. Junior Khyri Thomas gathered his guys together and told them to force three straight empty possessions. If they could summon the necessary toughness and tenacity to stiffen defensively, they’d be the ones celebrating at the final buzzer.

That was indeed the blueprint. Butler (12-6, 2-3 Big East) missed eight of its final 10 field-goal attempts during the game’s final three minutes and No. 25 Creighton held on for an 85-74 win before 17,229 rowdy fans at the CenturyLink Center.

“I just thought we dug in a little bit more,” coach Greg McDermott said. “We were running out of gas. … It’s been a tough stretch for us, but the bottom line is we found a way to get it done against a very good basketball team.”

The Jays’ fourth straight victory has, at least temporarily, vaulted them into sole possession of first place in the Big East. Tuesday’s showdown was their fifth game in a 13-day span, which included road trips to New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

But Butler wasn’t going to show any pity Tuesday. Certainly not when you consider the Bulldogs’ recent stretch of games — they faced off against arguably the top four teams in the league, all of which are ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll.

Even after falling behind early, they never relented.

They actually opened the second half by hitting 17 of their first 29 shots. And they grabbed the offensive rebound on five of those 12 misses. Of their first 34 points out of the break, 28 of them came in the paint. They seemed quicker to loose balls. They extended their defense out, too, knocking CU out of its rhythm.

“I love the fight in our group,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “We cut it to a two-possession game. We continued to fight.”

Creighton had to match that attitude down the stretch — and it was fortunate to have some cushion to work with late.

The Jays’ 17-point halftime lead had fizzled away, but they still clung to a six-point advantage when sophomore Davion Mintz stepped to the foul line with 3:04 left. He did miss the front end of a one-and-one — but that didn’t dampen CU’s spirit.

Creighton forced two stops. Junior Paul Jorgensen’s jumper made it 76-70 with 2:21 left. But Butler had four straight empty possessions after that.

A layup by Mintz on a back-cut and a runout dunk from sophomore Martin Krampelj stretched CU’s lead back to 10 points. The Jays sealed it by hitting 5 of 6 from the foul line.

“I huddled the guys up who were on the court when they were going through their run and I was like, ‘It starts with stops,’” Thomas said. “Those stops were big.”

It was actually that same type of defensive stinginess which helped Creighton jump out to such a big advantage in the first half.

Thomas was harassing Butler star Kelan Martin — who turned it over four times before the break. The Jays were alertly shouting out the Bulldogs’ play calls and their own positioning assignments, plugging up the paint and cleaning up on the glass.

It triggered their high-octane offense.

Foster beat the Bulldogs down the floor for a layup. There was a play where the senior shooting guard was calling for a lob when he crossed midcourt — junior Ronnie Harrell found him for the alley-oop dunk. Foster broke free for another layup two possessions later.

Thomas’ powerful one-handed slam in the lane — when he rose up over a stationary defender and elevated over everyone — actually came in a half-court setting. But it brought the crowd to its feet just as much as any play before it.

The Jays had a stretch before halftime where they scored on 10 consecutive possessions. They turned a one-point lead into a 41-24 advantage. When senior Toby Hegner hit a 3-pointer in the opening moments of the second half, pushing CU’s edge to 52-34, the game looked to be headed for blowout territory.

But Butler battled back.

The Bulldogs had a nine-possession stretch where they scored seven different times midway through the second half. They quickly followed that up by producing points on six straight trips — Martin’s bucket made it 74-68 with just under four minutes left.

The Jays held them off from there, though.

“(It was) everyone staying focused,” Mintz said. “The crowd was wonderful, keeping us motivated. Us motivating each other. Just coming together as one. That’s what we’ve really been focusing on.”

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