The Creighton men’s basketball team knew coming into Saturday’s game that Wagner would pose a challenge.
It’s safe to say the Bluejays were up to the task.
Creighton defeated Wagner 87-54 at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Saturday to advance to the NIT quarterfinals.
“We take every opponent seriously,” coach Greg McDermott said. “I don’t think you belong in this game if you don’t. Our coaching staff had tremendous respect for what they had done in the season and their body of work.
“It wasn’t difficult to sell it to our team, mostly because it wasn’t like they came in here 10-23, they won 23 games this year – that’s a lot of wins and a heck of a season.”
The fourth-seed Bluejays will play second-seeded BYU on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in Provo, Utah.
Saturday’s victory marked the Bluejays’ 20th of the season. Creighton has now won at least 20 games 16 different times since 1998-99. The Jays are one of 11 teams to accomplish that feat.
Senior center Geoffrey Groselle scored 18 points on a perfect 7 of 7 from the field to lead four different Bluejays with more than 10 points.
Junior forward Zach Hanson added a career-high 14 points – all in the first half -- as Creighton outscored Wagner 36-16 in points in the paint.
Groselle and Hanson finished a combined 12 of 15 from the field and 8 of 11 from the free-throw line.
“To be able to go to Zach off the bench when you’ve got a guy like Geoff that sets the tone early is a heck of a luxury,” McDermott said. “They’ve both been very consistent and their field-goal percentages reflect that.”
The Bluejays made their first eight shots from inside the 3-point line and ended with a 24-4 advantage in points in the paint during the first half.
“We executed well and Zach and Geoff had big nights mainly because of our game plan to get the ball into the post early,” senior James Milliken said.
Milliken added 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting from 3-point range and four assists.
Creighton had 18 assists on 28 made shots.
The Jays also held Wagner to its season-low shooting performance.
After limiting Alabama to 28.3 percent shooting, the Bluejays held Wagner to 27.9 percent.
“I was proud of our preparation more than anything,” McDermott said. “We certainly respected Wagner based on the season that they had -- winning their league, winning eight out of nine coming in here and then going into St. Bonventure -- so they had our coaching staff’s attention, my fear was would they have our players’ attention. To these guys credit, they did. I think that was evident with our defensive attention to detail.”
The Seahawks made only six field goals and had seven turnovers during the first 20 minutes.
Groselle knew the importance of a good start.
”I actually lost of a lot of sleep last night thinking we have to come out ready to play because I knew if we didn’t come out ready to play they’re a team that plays really hard,” Groselle said. “I knew if I came out with a lot of intensity and with a lot of energy that my teammates would follow me.”
Despite the 11:01 a.m. tip-off – the earliest in 243 all-time regular-season and postseason games in the 13-year history of CenturyLink Center Omaha – 6,471 fans attended Saturday’s game. The attendance helped Creighton conclude its home season with 302,887 fans, the most in school history.
The CenturyLink Center Omaha fans not only witnessed Milliken and Groselle play their final game at home but also had another chance to observe a potential star.
Freshman forward Khyri Thomas followed his 15-point performance against Alabama with 13 points on Saturday.
“Outside of the experience for the seniors getting to play extra games, his play in these two games is the most valuable thing that’s happening, just because of where he was mentality and from a confidence stand point and how he’s been able to flip it against teams that have had really good seasons,” McDermott said.
Creighton featured a considerable size advantage in Saturday’s game, but Wagner continued its strategy from the rest of the season.
“We just wanted to make it tough on them – stay in between them and the basket; that’s worked for us all year and we want to make guys prove that they’re good enough to score over the top of us,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “They were able to draw fouls on us and then we made some mistakes and they were able to score.”
The Seahawks committed 28 fouls and 11 turnovers. The Bluejays scored 12 points off turnovers and made 23 free throws.
“Every time we made a mistake they made us pay,” Mason said. “To make me feel better I hope they go win [the tournament].”
Creighton’s first opponent standing in its way of the NIT Championship is the 25-10 BYU Cougars. The Cougars average 83.9 points per game and are 15-2 at home.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” McDermott said. “They had 13,000 in there [Friday] night so I’m guessing we’re going to see a good crowd on Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be a heck of a challenge, there’s no question, but I know one that our team is looking forward to.”