Marcus Zegarowski

Marcus Zegarowski fights through Louisiana Tech's Kalob Ledoux and Kyle McKinley. Zegarowski and the Jays had to play gritty to defeat the Bulldogs.

The basketball skipped off a player’s foot and started rolling toward center court. That’s when sophomore guard Marcus Zegarowski dove the first time.

He couldn’t secure it, though.

The ball slipped off his fingers and continued on its straight-line course for a Louisiana Tech player, who seemed positioned to pick it up and reignite the Bulldogs’ ruthless second-half surge.

But that’s when Zegarowski dove again, and changed the game.

The depleted Jays, often missing their foul-plagued big men, used hustle and heart to survive an early-season test and earn an 82-72 win over Louisiana Tech Saturday at the CHI Health Center.

“I felt like if someone made a play like that, the momentum would shift, you know,” Zegarowski said. “I felt like that really lifted the crowd, and lifted us. That was a big momentum play, for sure.”

It might also be a sequence that serves as the nucleus of a new blueprint for Creighton, at least until reinforcements get healthy or eligible.

Creighton was forced into a five-guard lineup for stretches Saturday, with 6-foot-5 Damien Jefferson playing center while Louisiana Tech dispatched its athletic frontcourt to the glass. The Bulldogs ended up with 26 second-chance points on 14 offensive rebounds.

The Jays’ 6-11 grad transfer, Kelvin Jones, provided an influential presence inside — he scored 14 points — but he rolled his ankle and battled foul trouble after halftime. Starting big man Christian Bishop picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half and never subbed back in. The four other first-teamers played at least 34 minutes, often at an exhilarating pace.

Yet the Jays summoned enough energy to swarm around within a 1-3-1 zone in the final minutes, holding the Bulldogs to 2-of-7 shooting and forcing two turnovers over their last eight possessions.

And then there was a highlight-reel offensive rebound by Jones, who went airborne after a loose ball as if he were a wide receiver fearlessly hauling in a third-down catch through traffic. An elated coach Greg McDermott shoved Jones with two hands to celebrate after Creighton called a timeout.

“That energizes the crowd and lifts everybody else,” McDermott said. “But it had nothing to do with the basketball, dribbling it or passing it or shooting it. It was, ‘That ball’s on the floor and it’s going to be mine.’”

The Bluejays do envision a day when they can permanently etch that sort of effort and tenacity into their team identity.

Yes, they want to play fast and score quickly on offense. And perhaps when they’re at full strength in January, they can — for 40 full minutes — sustain some of the flash and flare they showcased in the first half, when they started 6 of 8 from 3-point range and built a 13-point lead.

Kelvin Jones

It was senior Kelvin Jones who ended up providing maybe the biggest lift for Creighton men's basketball. He stepped up, scored 14 points and dove for an offensive rebound in crunch time.

But they also want to prove to themselves that they’re capable of leaving an imprint on the game in other ways — because they know they’ll inevitably find themselves in situations like Saturday, when a free-flowing, end-to-end shootout abruptly transforms into a slugfest.

Those days when you have to win gritty, not pretty.

They’ll need plays like Zegarowski’s diving steal.

The CU point guard actually appeared to be bear-crawling his way across the court for one brief moment before he lunged for a second time with his right arm outstretched, curling his hand around the ball as he hit the hardwood. It was a 2-on-1 fast break from there — which ended with an alley-oop slam by Jones.

That put Creighton ahead 60-55 with eight minutes remaining.

The Jays technically didn’t seal the win until much later — juniors Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitch Ballock hit back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 75-68 with 2:14 left — but there was an unmistakable consensus afterward on the moment that sparked Creighton’s strong finish.

“Once Marcus hit the floor, it was a wrap,” said Ballock, who led Creighton with 22 points. “The crowd was involved after that. I looked up, and we were (fired) up. That definitely set the tone for the rest of the way.”

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