CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Creighton knew exactly what was coming from a gutsy and tenacious Kansas State defense Friday night. The Jays prepped all week for the relentless physicality.
But it sure didn’t look like it.
Not after the first five minutes. Not after halftime. Not even in the final moments of desperation.
CU’s high-powered offense was neutralized again in the NCAA tournament’s first round, stunned at the start and effectively smothered from there in a 69-59 defeat at the Spectrum Center. The Jays (21-12) matched a season low in points, finished with an abysmal 33.8 shooting percentage (their worst mark in two years) and got just two buckets from their leading scorer.
“They came right at us — right out the gate,” CU junior Khyri Thomas said.
No. 8 seed Creighton had no answer.
The game unfolded similarly to its 84-72 defeat in the first round last year against an attacking and confident Rhode Island squad, which held the Jays to 40 percent from the field and just 7 of 23 from 3-point range. CU had similar shooting numbers in a prior NCAA faceplant, a 85-55 loss in the second round to Baylor in 2014.
Friday’s defeat stretched Creighton’s NCAA tournament losing streak to three games, and each loss produced its share of disappointment and agony among a group of players who entered the postseason with lofty goals.
This year’s squad lacked the credentials of the Doug McDermott-led Jays in 2013-14 or the potential-filled club that spent eight weeks in the top 10 last season. Still, Creighton players talked all year about making a historic March run.
And they seemed well positioned to get off to a good start with a win Friday.
No. 9 seed Kansas State (23-11) had to play without its top scorer, the versatile 6-foot-10 forward Dean Wade, who suffered a stress fracture last week and couldn’t heal in time for tipoff.
Marcus Foster, the now-matured K-State transfer, was getting a shot at his old team. Two Creighton players, Davion Mintz and Ty-Shon Alexander, were returning home to North Carolina. And everyone was motivated by the results of last season, when the Jays were ousted right away.
They thought they were ready.
But then the game started.
“We let them speed us up early, and it took us awhile to get comfortable,” CU freshman Mitch Ballock said. “They threw the first punch and we just never got back on our feet.”
Kansas State never trailed. The Wildcats scored the first seven points. Nodding and pumping their fists, they only ratcheted up their energy from there.
They withstood Creighton’s attempts to snatch any momentum, too.
The Jays pulled within 20-16 at the five-minute mark in the first half, but then redshirt freshman Cartier Diarra drained a deep 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer. He blocked a layup attempt on Creighton’s ensuing possession, which led to a rim-rattling alley-oop.
Ballock’s 3-pointer with seven seconds left was answered by freshman Mike McGuirl’s long triple at the first-half buzzer.
CU trimmed its deficit to two points early in the second half, but K-State scored on three straight possessions. The Jays made it 42-39 on Alexander’s 3-pointer, but the Wildcats soon had a string of four straight possessions with points.
“We kept making big plays,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said.
Creighton couldn’t match it.
The Jays said that they thought everyone played hard. Coach Greg McDermott said they brought enough toughness to Friday’s game. None of the players sensed during timeouts that anyone was ready to quit.
But they couldn’t settle in.
Kansas State was ready for the Jays’ go-to plays — the off-ball screens for Foster, the lobs to freshman Jacob Epperson, the one-on-one isolation chances for Thomas. The Jays couldn’t get their transition game going against one of the nation’s slowest-paced teams.
They had trouble dribbling into the heart of the KSU defense and yet struggled to find space for shooters on the outside. They were getting bumped and bodied and hip-checked.
For 40 minutes.
And Creighton could only sputter and stumble about, unable to find its footing as K-State strutted and flexed its way into the NCAA second round.
“We knew what we were doing. We knew the game plan,” Ballock said. “We just didn’t execute it at the end of the day.”