ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Creighton had hoped a demanding early-season schedule would toughen up the Bluejays and prepare them for conference play.
Instead, it's left them questioning whether they're tough enough, especially in the wake of another disappointing finish Saturday against No. 19 New Mexico.
After building a 12-point halftime lead against the unbeaten Lobos, Creighton melted down in the final 20 minutes to fall to 4-6. It was a repeat of performances against Dayton, Michigan, Iona and George Mason, and it left the Bluejays frustrated about their inability to finish games.
“The question I have for everybody, including myself, is where does our passion go?'' Creighton forward Justin Carter said. “We lost our passion in the second half, and we also lost our toughness.
“We have to find our toughness. We tested it for 20 minutes. Why can't we test it for another 20 minutes?”
For the first 20 minutes against New Mexico, Creighton played about as well as it had all season, 13 turnovers notwithstanding. The Bluejays made shots on the offensive end and plays on the defensive end. They outbattled the Lobos for rebounds and loose balls. They were the aggressors, winning most of the hustle plays.
But when the shots stopped dropping in the second half, Creighton tightened up. The Bluejays became tentative, and it was the Lobos who started coming up with almost all the 50-50 balls. No stat illustrates that better than the 16 offensive rebounds New Mexico grabbed that led to seven second-chance points.
The biggest came with less than a minute to play, after New Mexico's Darington Hobson missed the second of two free throws. Teammate Roman Martinez came up with the rebound, saving the basketball just before it went out of bounds and feeding Hobson for a dunk that turned a two-point lead into a four-point advantage.
The Lobos sealed the victory by making 5 of 6 free throws in the final seconds.
Afterward, Martinez's teammates and coach, Steve Alford, praised the team's only senior for finding ways to seemingly will his team to win.
“If it wasn't for Ro,” Hobson said, “this team wouldn't be 12-0.”
What's become apparent for Creighton after 10 games is that the Bluejays lack a counterpart to Martinez. Or George Mason's Cam Long, or Michigan's Manny Harris, or Dayton's Chris Wright.
Those were the guys who made big plays or shots when their teams needed them down the stretch. The Bluejays haven't been able to find a guy, or guys, to produce similar heroics.
The result is a frustrated team heading into Tuesday's home game against Houston Baptist, Creighton's last nonconference game before it begins Missouri Valley Conference play Dec. 29 against Northern Iowa.
The Bluejays could be the only Valley team that opens league play with a losing record. Drake also is below .500 at 5-6 but could get back to even with a win Tuesday at home against San Diego State.
After Saturday's loss, Creighton coach Dana Altman was asked what can be done to toughen up his team.
“If I had the answer for that, I'd do it right away,” Altman said. “We used to be known kind of as a tough team, a tough program. We've probably lost that reputation in the last few years.”
How do the Bluejays regain it?
“We have to listen to Coach,” center Kenny Lawson said. “That's probably a lot easier than we make it. We just have to continue to trust him.”
And, Carter said, the Bluejays need to look within themselves.
“As a team and as a staff, toughness is what everybody is questioning,” he said. “We just have to find ways to get it done.”
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