Creighton found an extra gear on defense after halftime, raising its intensity and sharpening its focus in time to transform the trajectory of a potential Sunday afternoon upset.
The Bluejays needed three minutes to erase a five-point deficit. They were up by double digits before the half’s midway point and closed it out late without any drama.
And defense was the difference, Creighton’s players said after the 76-67 win over North Florida.
That was evident when sophomore Christian Bishop stood his ground to force a traveling violation on North Florida’s first possession of the second half. And when freshman Shereef Mitchell poked the ball away from a dribbler for a steal. And when junior Marcus Zegarowski slapped away an entry pass, then dove to secure a turnover. And when junior Mitch Ballock rose up to secure rebounds (he had a career-best 11).
Creighton’s collaboration and marksmenship created countless second-half highlights Sunday, but the players spent much of their postgame press conference talking about what happened on the other end of the floor.
“We use our defense as a catalyst to our offense,” Zegarowski said. “We know we’ve got to guard. It has to happen.”
Said junior Ty-Shon Alexander: “We really turned up the defense.”
North Florida made two shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half. After the Jays allowed North Florida to pick up seven offensive boards on its first 14 misses to begin the game, the Ospreys had one second-chance opportunity for 12-plus minutes after the break.
Alexander hounded J.T Escobar, a 45% 3-point shooter who finished 0 of 7 from long range. Zegarowski shadowed point guard Ivan Gandia-Rosa, who missed his first five 3s until burying one with 43 seconds left.
The Ospreys ended up shooting 32.8% from the floor, their lowest rate of the season and the lowest mark for a CU opponent since Division II Bemidji State shot 27.0% in 2018.
“We came out of the locker room the way I’d hoped we’d come out of the locker room,” McDermott said.
McDermott didn’t think the first-half mistakes were extreme. Poor communication more than anything, he said. But he was disappointed because he thought Creighton’s slow-shooting start (8 of 22) influenced the players on defense early on.
He told the players that at the break. They also indicated their halftime conversations with one another were pointed and purposeful. They knew they could fight a little harder on the glass, contain the dribble a little better on the perimeter and talk their way through switches more effectively.
So they made a change.
The result was an 18-5 run to open the second half. The Jays (4-1) went ahead 50-41 on junior Damien Jefferson’s putback at the 13:02 mark. CU then knocked down its next four 3s, pushing the advantage to 64-49.
The Ospreys (4-3), who led by as many as nine in the first half, closed to 70-62 with 3:36 remaining. But they ended up missing their next five shots and Creighton held on. Zegarowski finished with 19 points, Alexander had 18 and Ballock added 15.
“We did everything as a whole to make sure we came out (in the second half) and turned this game the way that we wanted,” Alexander said.
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