Fifth-seeded Creighton felt lady luck was on its side during Saturday’s 63-62 NCAA Basketball Tournament win over No. 12 UCSB, and that her name was Betty Walker.
Coach Greg McDermott credited a Bluejays superfan who passed away in recent weeks for two game-winning free throws by a 57% foul shooter and a UCSB layup that rimmed out of the basket with just two seconds to go.
“Christian (Bishop) was her favorite player,” he said. “I think she slapped that lay-up out of the rim, and I’m pretty sure she steered Christian’s two free throws into the basket, as well, from heaven today.”
Bishop, who struggled to make even practice free throws during the previous day’s workouts, capped his double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds with a pair of go-ahead foul shots with 16 seconds to go.
He said he just “smelled the roses on it.”
“Yesterday when I was shooting free throws, I was like, ‘Why am I missing? Why am I missing?’” Bishop said. “And one of the coaches was like, ‘Just tell yourself when you don’t make it, it’s a mental thing.’ I just gave myself the confidence and hit the shots.”
The Gauchos (22-5) jumped on Creighton (21-8) at the start, making eight of their first nine shots. Devearl Ramsey hit a pair of early jumpers, sandwiching a three-pointer by JaQuori McLaughlin in the first three minutes.
McLaughlin tipped in UCSB’s only miss in the first eight minutes.
“It certainly wasn’t an easy game,” McDermott said. “Santa Barbara is really talented. They were ready to play from the jump, and I thought they got us back on our heels early.
“And when we finally caught our second wind, I thought we played better, at least the rest of the half.”
The Bluejays restricted McLaughlin to just those first two shots in the first half by double-teaming him on the perimeter. The Big West Conference Player of the Year still finished with 13 points to share the team lead with Miles Norris. He also topped all Gauchos with seven assists and added six rebounds.
“Early in the game, they doubled me off ball screens and were being aggressive off the cuts,” McLaughlin said. “So later in the game I was being more aggressive when I passed the ball — on the one-more pass coming off the screen — and just in looking to pass.”
McLaughlin ignited UCSB’s early spurt by lobbing to Amadou Sow for an alley-oop dunk. Sow added another dunk off Ajare Sanni’s drive-and-dish while on his way to a 12-point performance.
Ramsey’s third-straight jumper and a floater by Destin Barnes gave the Gauchos their biggest lead of the game, 23-15, with 9:16 to go in the first half. Ramsey finished with 11 points.
But Creighton’s defense clamped down from there, forcing UCSB into five straight misses.
“Obviously, defensively, we’ve made great strides this season, and we needed it today because Cal-Santa Barbara is a terrific team,” McDermott said. “So offense was hard to come by, so we were going to have to defend if we expected to win this game.”
The Bluejays out-shot the Gauchos 44.8% to 39.3%.
“That’s a really tough team to play against — those guys play hard,” Bishop said.
Norris rammed in a driving dunk for a three-point play to end the dry spell, but three more misses and two turnovers opened the door for the Bluejays.
Marcus Zegarowski scored eight of his game-high 17 points in the final two minutes of the first half. They included a pair of threes and a running, high-arching bank shot at the buzzer to give Creighton a 34-30 lead at halftime.
“The last four minutes of the first half, they scored 11 points, and that really hurt us,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “But we held Creighton in the second half to 29 points, and that’s really tough to do. Credit to them. They’re a great team, a great coaching staff, and they do a great job.”
The Gauchos made just three of their last 15 shots of the half while missing six consecutive threes.
UCSB’s streak of missed three-point misses reached 11 when it failed to connect on its first five attempts of the second half. A three-point play by Mitch Ballock increased Creighton’s lead into double digits, 47-37, with 13:30 to go.
But the Bluejays fouled Norris on a three attempt just 25 seconds later. His three free throws triggered a big comeback for the Gauchos, who made four of their next five attempts from three — one each by Ramsey, Norris, Ajare Sanni and McLaughlin. The 21-5 run turned their 10-point deficit into a 58-52 lead with 5:40 left.
McLaughlin’s adroit playmaking resulted in four of his seven assists during that 7 1/2-minute span.
But Creighton responded with a 9-0 run which included a reverse dunk by Bishop. Zegarowski’s jumper gave the Bluejays a 61-58 lead with 1:40 on the clock.
“They had us down, we had them down,” McDermott said. “It was back and forth. Two good teams going at it.”
Sow scored the game’s next four points — two on a feed inside from Ramsey, and then two more from the foul line to give UCSB its last lead with 1:19 on the clock.
Damian Jefferson missed a jumper for Creighton, but Bishop got the rebound and was fouled while trying to bring the ball back out. Bishop, who got four of his 11 rebounds on the offensive end, calmly made the winning free throws.
“They had some really key offensive rebounds that hurt us, especially the one at the end,” Pasternack said.
Creighton double-teamed McLaughlin on the game’s final play, but he found Sow open in the middle of the key.
“I was looking to come off and shoot it, but they were on me, double-teaming me,” McLaughlin said. “Amadou was wide open, so I just made the right pass there … and he’s money in the paint.”
The Gaucho center leaned to his left while going for the layup to avoid charging into Shereef Mitchell. He got bumped in the process, altering his shot just enough for it to roll off the rim.
“I just got finished talking to them, and it’s a very difficult time for all of them, and our whole staff, because the game was right there for us,” Pasternack said. “This game can’t define our season. Our players did such an amazing job.”