FULLERTON, Calif. — Having already pulled off one dramatic comeback this season, Creighton found itself on the brink of another Friday night against San Diego State.
The No. 20 Bluejays trimmed a 19-point, second-half deficit to three with 27 seconds to play. They had the ball underneath their basket and set up a play that they hadn't used previously this season.
“I kind of have that St. Joe's feeling on that last play,” said Creighton forward Doug McDermott, referring to the Bluejays' comeback win over the Hawks earlier this month. “I felt like something big was going to happen, but I was unable to hit that shot.”
McDermott missed a contested close-range jumper that hung momentarily on the rim, and teammate Grant Gibbs couldn't convert after snaring the offensive rebound. The Aztecs then sealed the 86-80 win in the Wooden Legacy tournament with six points in the final 18 seconds to the delight of their large contingent of fans at the Titan Gym.
The victory put San Diego State (4-1) in Sunday's championship game, where the Aztecs will face Marquette at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Creighton will play for third place against George Washington after suffering its first loss in six games.
That disappointment is compounded by the fact that the Bluejays squandered a hot start against the Aztecs. With McDermott scoring 16 of his 30 points in the first seven minutes, Creighton jumped to 19-7 lead.
“I'm glad they didn't have the mercy rule in the first five minutes of the game,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “The way they started out on us, I know a lot of people were thinking it was going to be a rout.”
Fisher wasn't one of those folks. He figured his team's defensive ability — the Aztecs ranked second nationally in scoring defense coming into the tournament — gave it a chance to claw back into the game.
What he wasn't as sure about was his club's offensive ability.
“If you've watched us in practice or in our earlier games, sometimes we had a hard time making open shots,” Fisher said. “When we make open shots, we're very good because our staple is that we're going to make it very hard for teams to get a lot of easy, clean looks.”
After allowing Creighton to make 7 of its first 11 attempts, the Aztecs buckled down on defense. The Bluejays scored 11 points in the final 13 minutes of the first half, missing 11 of 15 shots from the field and committing a number of uncharacteristic turnovers.
“We kind of got away from what was working,” Gibbs said. “We were moving the ball and then we got really stagnant offensively. San Diego was switching ball screens, and we didn't do a good job of adjusting to that.”
The Aztecs closed the half on a 14-4 run that put them ahead 40-30. They opened the second half with an 11-2 spurt that put them ahead 51-32 with 16:08 to play.
Fisher reminded his club then that it was not time to relax. San Diego State had led Creighton by 17 points in a 2011 game on its homecourt only to see the Bluejays rally for an 85-83 victory.
“We knew there was lots and lots of time,” Fisher said. “This is a game of runs. We gave and we got.”
Creighton managed to get its deficit to nine points with 13:14 to play when Ethan Wragge, who had missed all three of his first-half shots, started heating up. His second 3-pointer of the second half cut the Bluejays' deficit to 61-52.
San Diego State gradually built its lead back to 68-55, but Wragge ignited a 10-2 Creighton run with his fourth 3-pointer and capped it with his fifth to make it 70-65 with 3:49 to play.
The Bluejays closed to within three points four times in the final 2:31, the last time after Austin Chatman scored on a drive with 27 seconds left. Creighton then got the ball right back when Xavier Thames was called for a push-off as San Diego State attempted to inbound the basketball.
Creighton called time out and set up a play that could have gotten the Bluejays within a point or tied the game.
“We hadn't run that play in a game yet,” Gibbs said. “I was looking for E (Wragge) coming off a screen or a little slip to Doug. We got a good look with Doug's shot, and I got the rebound and got it blocked.
“It was a decent look but you can't always look at that as the game. It was all the little mistakes we had that piled up and put us in that situation.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott would agree. He looked at the dozen turnovers, several of which came when the Bluejays tried to make ill-advised cross-court passes against athletic defenders, as a reason for the loss.
He'll surely note the 37-29 rebounding advantage that San Diego State built, as well as the 31 free-throw attempts the Aztecs got. San Diego State made 26 shots from the line, while Creighton got 11 attempts and made seven.
“We've been a team that through five games had made more free throws than our opponents had attempted,” McDermott said. “Tonight, our opponent shot 20 more than we did. We're going to have a hard time winning when that happens.”
San Diego State's three leading scorers — Thames (26), Winston Shepard (16) and JJ O'Brien (15) — collected 25 of their 57 points from the foul line.
“We have the ability with our length and athleticism to get to the rim,” Fisher said. “We shot a lot of free throws, but I think that's going to be our M.O.”
Still, those attempts might have had less impact if Creighton had built on its good fortune at the start of the game instead of wasting it.
“They were more physical than we were,” Greg McDermott said. “To their credit, we came out and threw the first punch but we couldn't knock them down. They came storming back.”
* * *
Video: Postgame press conference with Doug and Greg McDermott