The Creighton men’s basketball team believed that its 100-59 victory against St. John’s on Feb. 28 concluded the 2015-16 home schedule. The Bluejays’ selection into the National Invitation Tournament changed that fact.
Senior center Geoffrey Groselle scored 12 points and grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds as Creighton defeated Alabama 72-54 in the first round of the NIT at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Tuesday.
“It was very special to play in front of the home crowd again,” Groselle said. “I really enjoyed it and hopefully I’ll get a chance to come back and here and play again.”
The Bluejays may get that chance.
Creighton (19-14) will play either on the road against St. Bonaventure or at home against Wagner in a second-round game. St. Bonaventure and Wagner play on Wednesday at 6 p.m. The winner will play the Jays on a date to be determined.
Junior guard Maurice Watson Jr. led the Bluejays offensively with 20 points, but Creighton’s defense played a large role in its ability to pick up the victory.
“Defensively, our guys were locked in for a one-day prep to take away the shooters,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “I thought [Khyri Thomas] and James [Milliken] did a great job on [Retin] Obasohan. Watching SEC games, he was fantastic and I thought keeping a fresh guy on him and our pace wore into him a bit as the game went on.”
The Bluejays held Alabama 28.3 percent shooting; the lowest percentage by an opposing team this season.
“Our guys did a really good job of picking up on the shooters and locking up on defense,” Groselle said. “That really won us that game.”
Despite the win, the 6,305 in attendance did not see a strong start by the Jays. Creighton turned the ball over four times in their opening five possessions.
Thomas opened the scoring after getting fouled and making one of two free throws on the opening possession of the game, but the Crimson Tide jumped out to a 5-1 lead because of Creighton’s sloppy start.
With the score tied 14-14, Groselle made a pair of free throws and Watson made consecutive field goals to give Creighton a six-point lead.
Two free throws by Retin Obasohan cut the lead back to four before a Groselle layup and a corner 3-pointer by Ronnie Harrell Jr. put the Jays on top 25-16 with less than four minutes to play in the opening half.
Creighton closed the half on an 18-5 run to take a 30-19 lead.
Alabama shot 24.1 percent from the field in the first half and made only 3 of 16 from 3-point territory.
“To come out and pay attention to detail, it just shows how ready we were and how we didn’t let the fact that we weren’t in the NCAAs tarnish our confidence,” Watson said. “It just made us hungry.”
A 3-pointer by Thomas from the left wing gave the Bluejays their largest lead of 18 points at 41-23 four and a half minutes into the second half.
In only his second start in the last eight games, Thomas finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Tuesday marked the first time Thomas scored in double-figures since Dec. 28 against Coppin State when he scored 10.
“I told him before the game to just go have some fun; quit worrying about things and just go play,” coach Greg McDermott said. “Khyri’s continued to come in the gym; he’s continued to work on his game. There’s a lot of reasons this game’s important. I don’t know if we could find one that’s more important than him getting a little bit of swagger back.”
The Omaha native started his 26th game of the year in place of injured junior guard Isaiah Zierden.
Milliken fed Groselle for an alley-oop dunk to give Creighton a 47-31 lead and send the CenturyLink Center Omaha crowd to its feet, but the Crimson Tide did not give way.
Alabama’s Justin Coleman made three consecutive 3-pointers and scored the next eight points for the Crimson Tide to keep the game within reach.
Watson countered Coleman’s small spurt with the next five Creighton points and Alabama never cut the deficit to less than 11 points during the final seven minutes.
“We’ve taken the right step and the right direction,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “We set attendance records this year back at home in Tuscaloosa — we have a guy in Retin Obasohan that was first team All-SEC — so we have a lot to celebrate this year, but at the same time knowing that we have a long ways to go.
“Tonight wasn’t our night. We’ve played a whole lot better than what we showed tonight and, unfortunately, we just don’t have another chance.”
Coleman led the Crimson Tide with 18 points, while Obasohan scored 13.
“When we lose, it’s not always about what we did wrong; let’s give Creighton credit,” Johnson said. “They made shots, their big guys were much more physical than our guys, they got all the loose balls. They did it all tonight.”
If the Bluejays can win their next two games they will have the opportunity to head back to New York City.
The semifinal and championship games of the NIT will be held at Madison Square Garden, the same venue Creighton played the Big East Tournament at last week.
“We’re 80 minutes from getting back to the Garden, and that’s our goal,” McDermott said.