>> Video Below: Game highlights and postgame press conference
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Creighton's postgame talk about following its defensive game plan to perfection might have been the biggest shocker to come out of Friday night's 71-51 season-opening win over North Texas.
There were times last season when it appeared the Bluejays had no plan whatsoever to slow opposing teams.
“We knew they had a hard time making outside shots so we really packed it in,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “Their strength is in the low block, so we tried to make them shoot contested jumpers. We wanted them to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.”
The strategy resulted in an easier-than-expected victory at the CenturyLink Center. Paid attendance for the game was 17,139, a record for a Creighton opener.
The crowd turned out to see the only opening-night matchup of teams picked to win their respective conferences. As it turned out, Nos. 15 and 16 Creighton's defense turned the contest into no match as the Sun Belt's Mean Green shot 31.9 percent from the field and made 2 of 16 shots from beyond the arc (12.5 percent).
“I really liked the fact that we followed the game plan,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “That was encouraging to see. That's going to be part of who we are. We need to zero in on exactly what we need to do and make sure we execute that.”
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Creighton put great emphasis on trying to shore up a defense that ranked in the bottom third nationally in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage defense.
In McDermott's mind, that emphasis wasn't necessarily designed to turn players with defensive deficiencies into lockdown defenders. Instead, Creighton concentrated on improving its helpside defense along with honing its attention to detail, especially when it comes to following game plans.
“We didn't take value last year in how important that is,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “When the coaches come up with a game plan for us, we have to trust in their scouting. We did that tonight a lot better than last year.”
One didn't need to be John Wooden to know North Texas was going to try to get the ball to Tony Mitchell, the 6-foot-8 sophomore who is projected to be a high pick in next summer's NBA draft.
Mitchell scored 18 points, half coming in an early-game spurt in which the Mean Green managed to take their only lead. Mitchell scored nine consecutive points to help North Texas to a 13-11 advantage with 11:28 left in the half.
Creighton countered with a 6-0 run to regain the lead, and took a 39-25 lead into halftime, narrowly missing having a 17-point advantage when Gibbs' 30-footer at the buzzer was ruled to have come after time expired following the officials' review of the videotape.
The Bluejays made it difficult on Mitchell to get his points, and held his teammates to 26 percent from the field.
“We made him work for all those points,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We were bringing double teams at him and switched it up a little. We had a really good game plan on him. He got some offensive rebounds, but that's Tony Mitchell. I thought we did a good job of containing him.”
Much of the pregame focus was on McDermott and Mitchell, teammates on the U.S. under-19 squad two summers ago and two of the country's best players heading into this season.
McDermott came out the winner in that competition, scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 rebounds to Mitchell's 18 and 7. McDermott made 6 of 11 shots from the field and all eight of his free throws. Mitchell finished 8 of 15, with two of his baskets coming from beyond the 3-point line.
Again, that fit precisely into Creighton's pregame plan.
“We wanted to turn their shooters into drivers and their drivers into shooters,” Greg McDermott said. “If they were going to beat us, they were going to have to do it from beyond the 3-point line.”
The Mean Green's lack of success from beyond the arc kept any upset hopes from materializing. Mitchell's teammates went 1 of 10 from 3-point range, and no other North Texas player scored more than nine points.
Creighton supported its All-American McDermott with 11 points from point guard Austin Chatman and 10 in 11 minutes from Avery Dingman. Ten Bluejays scored as Creighton shot 50 percent from the field.
“We feel like we're going to have a good team, but we didn't play as well as we're capable of playing,” North Texas coach Tony Benford said. “I give Creighton a lot of credit for that. They did a great job, and they exposed some things that we need to work on.”
Creighton now will get ready for Wednesday's home game against Alabama-Birmingham. Much is expected from the Bluejays this season, mostly because of Doug McDermott and their high-powered offense.
But it was their defense that stole the spotlight on opening night.
“Maybe we just have some guys that are tired of getting scored on,” said Gibbs, trying to explain the defensive improvement the Bluejays showed for at least one game. “You have to make people do things that they don't do well, and we did a good job of that tonight.”
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