MORAGA, Calif. — It remains to be seen if Saturday's BracketBusters appearance lives up to its name for Creighton's basketball team.
What is clear after a 74-66 loss to St. Mary's is that the Bluejays haven't found a way to shake the troubling ways that threaten to sour what they thought would be a special season.
The loss, before a standing-room-only crowd of 3,500 at McKeon Pavilion, was Creighton's sixth in the past 11 games. To a man, the Bluejays say they don't doubt their ability to bounce back and still have the kind of finish that would secure the NCAA tournament spot that appeared all but assured five weeks ago.
Evidence, though, is mounting to the contrary, and Saturday's performance in the made-for-TV BracketBusters series just became another exhibit that can be used against the Bluejays.
Greg McDermott talked afterward about how the eight-point margin at the end showed that a couple of better possessions on offense and defense could have made a difference. In reality, McDermott's team spent much of the second half trying to eat into double-digit deficits that grew as high as 17.
“We put ourselves in a tough hole,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “We played better in the second half, but they just outplayed us in a lot of the facets of the game.”
The Gaels, who undoubtedly enhanced their postseason résumé by improving to 24-5, outshot, outrebounded and, many times, outhustled the Bluejays (22-7). They got a monster game from Matthew Dellavedova, the Australian Olympian who finished with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“He was every bit as good as advertised,” McDermott said.
Brad Waldow posted a double-double for St. Mary's with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and he also helped lead the defensive effort that made it difficult on Creighton star forward Doug McDermott. He led the Bluejays with 22 points, but was 7 of 18 from the field and had just two rebounds.
“It was great guarding such a high-caliber offensive player,” Waldow said. “I thought we did pretty well. He hit some pretty tough shots in the beginning, but we wanted him to take tough shots.
“Most of them were 3s with a hand in his face. You can't do better than that.”
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Five of Dellavedova's points came in the 8-0 run that St. Mary's used to turn a six-point lead into a 14-point halftime bulge. The Gaels scored on their final four possessions of the half while Creighton fell into another one of those offensive funks that are becoming commonplace.
McDermott missed a good look on a 3-point shot and then couldn't convert the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. Creighton's final two possessions of the half resulted in misses by point guard Austin Chatman, who finished 0 of 7 from the field.
Overall, the Bluejays shot 29.6 percent in the first 20 minutes. McDermott and Gregory Echenique combined to score 21 of the 24 points while their teammates went 1 for 13 from the field.
One of Creighton's hallmarks while rolling through the first two months of the season was aggressiveness at the start of games. In the rough patch the Bluejays have hit, they find themselves on their heels, trying to fight back after the opposing team lands a punch or two.
“We can't use that as an excuse, but it's something that has been happening,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “We need to start throwing the first punch, and then another two or three after that.”
The final 20 minutes turned into a game of ebb and flow. Mitchell Young, who had made just four 3-point baskets all season, buried one after opening the half with a 17-foot jumper that pushed St. Mary's lead to 43-26 with 18:21 to play.
“He's not a known perimeter shooter and we defended well, but he hit those two,” Greg McDermott said. “That's not something I've seen him do on tape the last five games.”
Creighton battled back behind Echenique, who scored seven of his 18 points in succession, and Doug McDermott, whose three-point play got Creighton within 43-34 with 15:21 to play. St. Mary's scored the next seven points. The Bluejays got the deficit back to 10 on an Ethan Wragge 3-pointer with 13:02 remaining.
Four minutes later, the Gaels' lead was back to 16. Creighton trimmed it to 10 with five minutes to play, but St. Mary's pushed it back to 15 before the Bluejays went to a late press to get as close as eight.
“We're losing these games by seven and eight points, and that's two offensive possessions and two defensive possessions,” Doug McDermott said. “If we could have those back, it could be a completely different game.”
But with the clock winding down on the season, Creighton can't afford to keep coming up short on possessions. The Bluejays have two games remaining in the regular season — Wednesday at Bradley and Saturday at home against Wichita State, the team they trail in the Missouri Valley by a game.
“We just have to grind through it,” Greg McDermott said. “We have a week left before we start preparation for the conference tournament. With a win on Wednesday, we have a chance to play for a conference championship in the last game of the year.
“We haven't had that opportunity the past two years. If you can't get yourself fired up for that, then you don't have a pulse.”
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>> Video: Creighton coach Greg McDermott discusses the Bluejays' loss to St. Mary's: