Jays look for sole Valley lead

Ally Jensen and Creighton have lost their last two games at Wichita’s Koch Arena. “It would be great leaving that place with a win in my senior year,” Jensen said.

WICHITA, Kan. — The Creighton men aren’t the only Bluejay basketball team facing a high-stakes matchup Saturday against Wichita State.

The prize to the winner of the 7 p.m. game between the Creighton women and the Shockers will be sole possession of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bluejays enter the game 4-0 in league play and 12-3 overall while Wichita State is 3-0 and 9-6.

“It would be great leaving that place with a win in my senior year,” Creighton guard Ally Jensen said. “And it would be huge if we could continue to be undefeated heading to Missouri State.”

The Bluejays have lost their last two games at Koch Arena. They also lost a neutral court meeting with the Shockers at the 2011 Valley tournament, a game that at the time seemed to underscore the disparity in the programs.

Wichita State was loaded with players capable of turning the game with their athleticism. The Shockers scored 18 points off 21 turnovers in pulling out a 58-52 victory.

This Creighton team probably hasn’t closed that athleticism gap in a physical sense but it does seem better prepared mentally to take on teams that might be blessed with advantages in sheer athletic ability.

“We have some experience, and that’s a big deal,” Creighton guard Carli Tritz said. “When we played them a couple of years ago, we didn’t have much margin for error. We had trouble scoring back then.

“Back then, if we’d get down by eight points, we were in trouble. Now, if we go a couple of possessions without scoring, it’s not that big of a deal. We know that we can rely on our offense rather than trying to keep the games in the 40s or the 50s.”

Creighton is third in the Valley in scoring (66.9 points per game) but leads the conference in field-goal percentage (.424) and 3-point field-goal percentage (.381). The Bluejays’ average of 9.3 3-pointers per game ranks second nationally.

After the first two weeks of conference play, Creighton leads the league in scoring (71.0), scoring defense (54.5), scoring margin (plus-16.5), field-goal percentage (.463), field-goal percentage defense (.351), assists (17.3 per game) and 3-point field goals (10.0 per game).

“I told the team that we’re going to struggle in stretches to score against Wichita State,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. “But we’re a better offensive team than we’ve been the past few years. I don’t expect a game in the 70s or the 80s but I also don’t anticipate a game like we had against them two years ago.”

That contest saw the teams tied 41-41 at the end of regulation. Creighton wound up winning at home 50-48 in overtime.

“As much as you want to tell kids that they should derive confidence from playing defense and rebounding,” Flanery said, “the ability to score is a confidence issue with most 20-year-olds.”

Flanery likes how his team has handled the role of being the team to beat. After making it to the NCAA tournament last season and returning all but two of its players, Creighton was picked to win the Valley in the conference’s preseason poll.

“Some of our kids are wired a little goofier than some kids we’ve had, and I say that in a good way,” Flanery said. “They know what other teams are doing but they’re not putting a ton of pressure on themselves.

“That’s where it’s good to have a player like Carli as a ringleader. She’s loose and doesn’t put a lot of pressure on herself, and that kind of sets the tone for a lot of the others.”

Tritz and Jensen also think this group is handling the new experience of being the hunted well.

“We know our weaknesses, and we’re focused every day, every practice and every possession on getting better,” Tritz said. “We can’t think about March because we won’t be in the position we want to be then if we don’t take care of these games now.”

Creighton contended for the championship in Jensen’s first three seasons but finished second, tied for second and fourth, respectively, in the regular-season race.

“In the past, we’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to get on top,” she said. “Now, we’re trying to have fun with it and enjoy it. It’s our goal to stay there, but I just feel like this year is a little different.

“We have a lot of confidence but we’re humble enough to know that there are a lot of things we need to improve on.”

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