KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Creighton left its shooting touch at the hotel early Saturday morning.
Thankfully for the Bluejays, they didn't leave McKenzie Fujan.
A year after losing a heartbreaker in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Creighton women rode a lights-out performance by Fujan to beat Syracuse 61-56.
It was the Bluejays' first NCAA tournament victory since 1994, and earned them a second-round game against Tennessee at 6 p.m. Monday.
It was also coach Jim Flanery's first NCAA win in his 11th year at Creighton.
“No year plays out exactly like you want or you think it's going to,” Flanery said. “But I credit our team for being resilient, and just being tough enough to win an NCAA tournament game. Because it's not easy.”
This one wasn't.
A team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer mostly died in the first half, struggling to connect against the Orange's 2-3 zone defense.
Fujan's 17-point, first-half explosion kept the 10th-seeded Bluejays in the game, though. Tied 33-33 in the second half, Creighton went on a 14-4 run capped by a Marissa Janning 3-pointer with 8:39 to play.
The seventh-seeded Orange had their own comeback plans, though.
Star center Kayla Alexander — who scored 23 points despite double teams aimed at denying her the ball — tallied 10 points in five minutes, and Carmen Tyson-Thomas' layup with 19 seconds left cut Syracuse's deficit to one.
That's when Fujan stepped in, making two crucial free throws in the final seconds to extend the lead. Elashier Hall missed a 3 to tie, and a pair of Sarah Nelson free throws capped the scoring with 0.3 seconds remaining.
After last year's heartbreak, when St. John's hit a game-winning layup with 0.1 seconds left, Flanery was pleased with his team's ability to close out a tight game.
“There were times where we got a little rattled against their pressure,” he said. “But I thought for the most part we really did a good job of playing in the lead there those last eight to 10 minutes.”
Fujan's previous career high came a week earlier, when she scored 22 points in a Missouri Valley Conference tournament loss to Illinois State.
On Saturday, she scored 24, including six 3-pointers.
“Other than McKenzie, we couldn't throw it in the ocean the first 15 minutes, but we were still in the game,” Flanery said. “And I said that's a positive because at some point, somebody else is going to start making baskets.”
That no-worries attitude rubbed off on his players.
“We weren't worried,” Fujan said. “We knew that even if we were going to miss we were still going to shoot, and that was our game plan. We knew that we were going to have to shoot a lot of 3s ... against their zone.”
Late in the game, Syracuse abandoned the zone in an effort to cut its deficit, but coach Quentin Hillsman was mostly pleased with his team's defensive effort.
“I don't think it was so much of our defense,” Hillsman said. “They shot 36 percent from the field, 30 percent from 3, which was well below their average. We didn't score.
“Definitely I know it sounds crazy, but I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping them below their averages.”
In the second half, the Bluejays were more successful at attacking in the paint, with assists and driving layups. Hillsman cited Creighton's strategy as a factor.
“I give Coach (Flanery) a lot of credit,” Hillsman said. “He did an awesome job of spreading us out, attacking our pressure.”
That wasn't the case in the first half. The teams entered halftime tied 24-24, an achievement for Creighton considering an icy start that included 11 turnovers against a pressing zone defense.
The Bluejays missed their first eight 3-pointers and made only one of their first 12 field-goal tries, despite feasting on the offensive glass.
But Fujan carried the team nearly by herself in the first half.
While her teammates were 2 of 23 shooting, the junior guard made 5 of 6 3-pointers and a put-back before halftime.
Trailing 14-5 early, CU clawed its way back and took its first lead with less than three minutes left in the half.
A jumper put the Orange up by 3, but with 2.4 seconds left, forward Sarah Nelson made a driving layup and drew a foul for a three-point play.
It was one of the few times that the Bluejays had any early inside success against the Syracuse front line, but it sent Creighton into the locker room with momentum.
The Bluejays' reward for the upset is a matchup with Tennessee.
Playing on their home court, the second-seeded Volunteers defeated Oral Roberts 83-62 in Saturday's second game.
It was the first NCAA tournament victory for Holly Warlick, who took over at Tennessee this season after the retirement of legendary coach Pat Summitt.
Flanery and his team watched part of that game in the locker room, and the coach said Creighton will have its hands full defensively against the Volunteers.
“I feel like we have enough weapons (offensively) that we can create some problems on that end,” he said. “But ... we're going to have to be super-sharp defensively and then obviously we're going to have to be composed like we were today.”
* * *
• Video: Creighton's postgame press conference: