It is hard to imagine a worse start to the 2021-22 season for the Creighton men’s basketball team than their opening half performance Tuesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
In front of a mostly packed arena for the first time in 18 months, the Jays sleepwalked their way through a sloppy first half, turning the ball over nine times, starting 0-13 from three, giving up a 22-2 run and facing an eight point deficit at the half.
But Creighton came out an entirely differ- ent team in the second half, scoring on 18 of their first 24 possessions to take their season opener 90-77.
“This is a very young team, so I am very proud of the way they responded after that first half,” said coach Doug McDermott.
The key to this second half performance was senior guard Alex O’Connell, who poured in dunk after dunk and three after three to bring Creighton back.
“I didn’t actually start the first half well, but I made sure to not press and let the game come to me,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell finished with a team high 20 points, but for McDermott, O’Connell’s effort on the defensive end really stood out, especially after they switched him to Pine Bluff’s Trey Sampson at the start of the second half.
Sampson, who had 20 points in the first half, scored just nine in the second with O’Connell defending him.
“Alex was stellar on both ends, but I thought what he did tonight defensively was really impressive,” McDermott said. “We needed someone to lock down, and he delivered.”
This intensity on the defensive end led to steals and exhilarating dunks, both of which got the crowd involved and only further fueled Creighton’s second half run.
“With COVID last year, I had never felt anything like that, so it was really cool to hear this place like that,” O’Connell said.
Along with O’Connell, the Jays newcomers also played a large part in their second half resurgence, headlined by a pair of double doubles from senior transfer forward Ryan Hawkins (16 points, 11 rebounds) and freshman guard Ryan Nembhard (15 points, 10 assists).
“Coach was just preaching to us to stay poised,” Nembhard said. “Teams are going to go on runs, and we knew ours was coming.”
Fellow freshman Arthur Kaluma also joined in on the fun, registering 15 points and an impressive four blocks.
It was these new additions, along with the poise and energy of O’Connell, that created a lopsided second half tally of 51-30 in Creighton’s favor, eradicating Pine Bluff’s lead and securing Creighton’s first victory of the season at 90-77.
“In the end I will take the win and be happy, but we have a lot to learn,” McDermott said.
The Jays will continue their non-conference slate as they will have played Kennesaw State Thursday at CHI and will match up in what is expected to be a closely contested cross-state rivalry game with Nebraska next Tuesday, Nov. 16.