California coach Mike Montgomery liked the way his team played defense Sunday night against Creighton.
Bluejay coach Greg McDermott loved the effort his players turned in on that end of the court. They shut down the Golden Bears in posting a 68-54 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 17,533 at CenturyLink Center.
“I think the first half was about as good as we’ve played,” McDermott said. “To hold them to 19 points with most of their regular rotation in place was a heck of an effort.
“That’s a sign that the guys understood the game plan and understood what they’re supposed to do. It’s one thing to understand it, and it’s another to execute it. Fortunately, tonight we were able to do both.”
California, which entered the game averaging 75 points, shot 36.4 percent, going 5 for 24 from 3-point range. But, McDermott was quick to point out, the Golden Bears were playing without starting guard Ricky Kreklow. And his replacement, Jabari Bird, went down with an ankle injury late in the first half.
“We lost two guys that theoretically were our starters,” Montgomery said. “As badly as we shot the ball, Bird looked like he was going to get going a little bit. And when Jabari gets going like that, he makes shots. That really hurt us, but that wasn’t the ultimate problem.”
The real problem was the Golden Bears’ inability to handle what Creighton threw at them defensively. The Bluejays double-team 6-foot-10 forward Richard Solomon almost every time he touched the ball. Solomon came in averaging 12 points and 10.6 rebounds but finished with six points and six rebounds.
California’s other big man, 6-9 David Kravish, was hindered by early foul trouble and finished with 11 points. With neither player able to produce consistently, the Golden Bears resorted to casting up some ill-timed shots from the perimeter.
“I thought we defended well, doing about what we set out to do,” Montgomery said. “Our game plan was sound.
“Offensively, we were poor. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves by not shooting the ball really well. Creighton knew that there were some key guys they wanted to play off of and try to keep the ball out of the post. They did a nice job of crowding the paint, and then we couldn’t make a shot.”
Creighton struggled, too, shooting 44.6 percent from the field — its third-lowest performance of the season. Star forward Doug McDermott missed 6 of his first 7 attempts and finished 9 of 21 in leading the Bluejays with 20 points.
With the offense sputtering at times, Creighton rode its defense to its third straight wire-to-wire victory that improved the Bluejays to 9-2 with one nonconference game remaining.
“We weren’t as fluid moving the ball offensively as we usually are,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “Give them credit for that. They did a good job of taking away a lot of stuff that we usually get pretty easily.
“It was important that we were able to sustain our defense and kind of win the game with our defense. There are going to be nights like this where you struggle offensively, so that was a good step for us.”
In fact, Gibbs said, it’s been a long time since the Bluejays played this well defensively for an entire game.
“We’ve had stretches where we played well,” he said, “but collectively, to a man, we did a good job with our defensive schemes. The double teams, taking away other players’ tendencies.
“This was our best defensive effort for a full game.”
Creighton set the tone early, allowing California to score on three of its first 16 possessions. The Golden Bears finally found a bit of a groove, and managed to cut the Bluejays’ 15-6 lead to 20-18 when Kameron Rooks made a jumper with 4:38 left in the half.
Creighton closed the first half on a 10-1 run, limiting California to a free throw on its final six possessions of the half. The Bluejays then held the Golden Bears to one basket — a 3-pointer by Tyrone Wallace — on their first seven possessions of the second half.
Those 13 possessions turned the game, as Creighton managed to heat up on offense. McDermott scored eight of his 10 first-half points in the final 4:12, including tipping in a missed shot shortly before the buzzer.
That put the Bluejays up 30-19, and they opened the second half on a 10-3 spurt that featured 3-pointers by Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge. When McDermott scored on a floater with 15:16 left, Creighton’s lead had expanded to 40-22. California never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.
McDermott scored 10 of his points during the decisive span, making 4 of 6 shots from the field.
“I was just missing some shots that I usually make at the start,” McDermott said. “I was maybe rushing some things a little bit, but I finally got comfortable there after I got one to go.
“I tried to get going by crashing the offensive glass. From there, the guys did a great job of finding me in the right spots.”
McDermott also grabbed 11 of Creighton’s 39 rebounds. Austin Chatman, Gibbs and Wragge added offensive support by scoring 11, 10 and nine points, respectively. Gibbs also had six rebounds and three assists.
Justin Cobbs led California (8-4) with 13 points, while Wallace had 12 but missed 7 of 11 shots from the field.
Creighton now has a week off before facing Chicago State to close nonconference play. The Bluejays begin their first Big East season on New Year’s Eve against Marquette.
“It feels good to get this one right before the break,” Gibbs said. “It makes Christmas seem a little bit better.”
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Video: Creighton-Cal highlights
Video: Postgame press conference