Creighton falls to Arizona in Maui finale

Ryan Kalkbrenner sank into his seat on Creighton’s bench, trying to wipe a face full of sweat. The towel that crept down his face slowly revealed a set of eyes seemingly pierced with exhaustion. He’d had a hell of a week, and it was only Wednesday.

A Maui Invitational title game matchup with No. 14 Arizona didn’t exactly make it easier.

Kalkbrenner and the Bluejays had their hands full with the Wildcats, who couldn’t do much wrong for the better part of 40 minutes, handing CU its first loss of the season, 81-79.

“They’re so hard to guard,” coach Greg McDermott said. “There’s a reason they’re one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. You’ve got the strength inside both the fourth and the fifth and elite shooting around it. With limited preparation time, we had to throw out there what we thought was best and try to adjust as we went.”

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While playing two teams as gritty as Texas Tech and Arkansas on consecutive days likely played a part in the eventual foxhole Creighton was forced to dig itself out of Wednesday, Arizona clicked on all cylinders early.

The Wildcats’ sizable frontcourt took it to the Jays, demonstrating the qualities that allowed Tommy Lloyd’s squad to cruise to a tournament championship berth.

Kalkbrenner started the week with the Red Raiders’ Daniel Batcho, whose athleticism allowed for some wonky plays. Then he took on Arkansas’ Trevon Brazile, a large sharpshooter who drew the 7-foot-1 big man from the rim. But there was no preparation for the performance Arizona’s Oumar Ballo put on, especially on Day 3 in the islands.

Ballo, a 7-footer listed at 260 pounds just like Kalkbrenner, wore his weight a bit differently. From the jump, he threw his hips into Kalkbrenner, displaying an elite level of footwork when facing the two had their 1-on-1 opportunities down low.

With an equal amount of strength and mobility, Ballo’s positioning only improved. He seemingly inched his way closer and closer to the rim as the game progressed.

“Ballo was just a load down there,” McDermott said. “You have to make some decisions when you play them because of their ability to shoot. We decided to play him 1-on-1, and did a better job in the second half than we did in the first. But he had a heck of a game.”

By the final buzzer, Ballo scored a career-high 30 points on 14 of 17 shooting with 13 rebounds. When Creighton wasn’t working to deal with Ballo, Azoulas Tubelis had sophomore Arthur Kaluma’s head spinning. The 6-11 forward finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, running the floor as well as anyone and getting the ball out of his hands quicker than the Jays could often react.

On the other end, Tubelis similarly frustrated Kaluma the way Jordan Walsh did less than 24 hours earlier. The desire to give the Jays a bucket was there. But Kaluma found himself forcing several possessions on the ball, ending the game with six points on 2 of 6 shooting with two turnovers.

Sophomore Trey Alexander’s shot making off the bounce and some extended minutes from redshirt freshman Mason Miller wound up being much of what helped Creighton hang on while Arizona struggled to find its touch.

Then the Wildcats decided to turn things up a notch.

Back-to-back threes in the final minute of the first half got AU going, with its defense already keeping it intact. Even after playing two top-10 defenses through his first couple days in Maui, it would be Arizona that shapeshifted to contain Creighton’s best.

The Wildcats denied a good amount of Creighton’s offensive actions, even denying its ball handlers so tightly that it forced junior Ryan Kalkbrenner to toss up a couple of 3s.

Arizona could hardly miss in the second half, shooting 62.5% from the field. It even extended its lead to as much as 13 points. Creighton would land a blow before Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa made a play here and there to drive the Wildcats further away.

Yet after forcing seven Arizona turnovers and some late game heroics from sophomore Ryan Nembhard — who tallied 20 points on 6 of 13 shooting just a day after a career performance — Creighton wasn’t ready to call it quits.

The Jays found their way back to their season-long level of efficiency, finishing the game 5 of their last 5 from the field to shoot 46% from the field. Trailing by three with 7.4 seconds left, McDermott knew a 3 was his only option. He knew Arizona would foul anyone who caught it beyond the arc.

Kalkbrenner, who’d already knocked one down, had feet of space for both of his 3-point attempts to that point. McDermott drew it up so Kalkbrenner would catch it at the top of the arc, free of any contest. That was until Ballo spoiled the Jays’ plans.

Not only did the big man close out on Kalkbrenner, he left the ground in an attempt to swat his shot. It eliminated the time and space Kalkbrenner needed to load into his jumpshot. Five seconds, a handoff to Nembhard and a free-throw trip later and Ballo essentially eliminated the Jays’ Maui title chances.

“There’s so much learning that can take place as a result of three games like this,” McDermott said. “You play three ranked teams in essentially 52 hours. It’s everything that you’ve been working on, everything you’ve been practicing. It’s a barometer for where you are.”

“There’s a lot of good things that come out of it. We’ll be off for a couple days but we’ll get back to the practice floor Saturday and be able to really work on ourselves.”


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