When opponents utilize a zone defense - specifically a 2-3 as Arkansas-Pine Bluff did for 40 minutes on Tuesday, the eyes of Creighton's best shooters light up.
The Bluejays (8-2) shot 30 3-pointers, 10 of which were makes. The Jays also created other ways to illuminate the scoreboard in the 88-51 win over the visiting Lions (2-8). Doug McDermott hit 13 free throws without a miss and finished with a game-high 25 points, leading all scorers.
The nation's second leading scorer opened the affair with a dunk via a lobbed pass from Jahenns Manigat and connected for three on CU's next offensive possession. A "Wragge Bomb" following a Manigat steal made the score 8-2 early, and the route was on from there. Although George Ivory's squad entered the game with a losing record, a strong start was vital for the Bluejays.
"I said on numerous occasions leading up to the game that Arkansas-Pine Bluff had played 20 to 30 minutes of pretty good basketball in a lot of games," Coach Greg McDermott said. "Against A&M, against Oklahoma State, they played 40 good minutes against Air Force; they were down four at Oregon State at halftime. So, I really felt like a good start was very important tonight."
The Bluejays doubled up their visitors in the first 20 minutes, owning a 44-22 lead at intermission behind a 14-point, eight-rebound half from McDermott. Fellow senior Ethan Wragge hit three of his four triples in the opening period. Wragge finished with 12 points, but would've preferred more effeciency after he spent practice "licking his chops" in anticipation of the Lions' zone, according to the CU coach.
"I was excited. We don't play against a lot of zone," said Wragge. "I would like to make a couple more if I'm going to get 11 up there."
Although the Bluejays made just a third of their 30 attempts from deep, well below the team average of 42.8 percent, Coach McDermott and his squad were pleased with the team's shot selection. What his team wasn't entirely happy about was the start of the second half, which has plagued the Jays at different times in the early season.
"We got to be better coming out of the locker room," said Doug McDermott. "It's pretty much been a theme all year where we've gotten off a slow start out of the break. So, we have to clean that together, and I think we'll be fine."
Doug McDermott's jumper with 12:42 remaining in the game was the Jays' first made field goal of the second half. The bucket expanded the CU lead to 18. The large lead and the starter's inability to start the second half the way it did the first presented some key reserves an opportunity to showcase their abilities. Creighton's "Bench Mob" scored 39 points and inflated the lead to its final 37-point margin.
Will Artino topped the Creighton bench players with 10 points, while Devin Brooks, Avery Dingman and Isaiah Zierden scored eight, seven and six points, respectively. Coach McDermott has given Artino high marks in each of the three games he has played since transitioning to a reserve role. He also praised the development of Zierden and true freshman Zach Hanson, who scored four points on a pair of dunks. Coach Mac went on to call Devin Brooks the most improved player from the beginning of the season, but the junior from Branson, Missouri may be the player who caught McDermott's eyes the most this week.
"Avery Dingman has had three of the best days in a row as a Bluejay, as he's ever had," said his coach. "His last two days of practice and today in the game, just more confident, more urgency to his play."
Following the game, Dingman credited his performance on feeling rejuvenated physically, which allowed him to bring more energy to the table. A heightened level of energy apparently paid off. Dingman made a pair of layups and 1-2 tries from beyond the arc with three rebounds and two assists in 11 minutes. He expects big things from the bench whenever they can increase the intensity.
"We know that coming off the bench we need to bring a spark. There can't be a drop when we come in," said Dingman. "So, I mean, I wouldn't say we're really focused on trying to score. I'd say we're focused on bringing energy, making a difference on the defensive end, going for loose balls, stuff like that."
Dingman may have been feeling good on Tuesday, but Coach McDermott wasn't sure that would be the case for the rest of his guys. Finals week, and the potential lack of sleep that comes along with it, concluded on Friday and on top of that, different members of the squad have spent time fighting a seasonal bug.
"This is my 20th year as a head coach going through finals, and every year, I say I'm going to crack the code to practicing well during finals week, and it's just really hard to do," said McDermott. "Guys, their minds are elsewhere. They're not sleeping or eating probably like they normally do. Their routine is different. Then you throw into the mix this year that we had the flu kind of run through our team for four or five days. So, I'm really proud of the way they prepared for this game."
With academics and frequent trips to the bathroom hopefully in the rearview mirror, the Jays have a couple free days to prepare for California. CU predicts a hungry Bears team will come to Omaha after the Bluejays left Berkley with a win a season ago. Creighton's shooters might have to create their own reason to stay bright-eyed on Sunday. Mike Montgomery's teams rarely utilize a zone, and through 11 games, the Bears are only allowing 64 points per contest.
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