ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Freshman point guard Ryan Nembhard went the length of the floor in the final five seconds and hit a buzzer-beating floater to cap a Creighton comeback win against Southern Illinois on Monday.
The speedy rookie caught the in-bounds pass and dribbled downcourt — all the way to the edge of the paint — before pulling up for the right-handed runner that he guided over the outstretched arms of a rotating SIU big man.
The ball bounced off the front of the rim and rolled along the left side of the iron before popping up, hitting off the backboard and dropping in.
A celebrating Nembhard skipped backward to the opposite corner of the court as his gleeful teammates chased him down. The Jays (5-1) had clinched a 66-64 win, roaring back with a 12-2 run in the final four minutes after the Salukis (2-3) built an eight-point lead.
“Coach had a draw-up for us to get me the ball on the run,” Nembhard said outside the CU locker room Monday in a video released by Creighton. “Just make a play, whatever that was — pass, score. Obviously I made a little floater.”
The play call has actually been in Creighton’s system for several years — former CU assistant Paul Lusk installed it, according to coach Greg McDermott.
He said the Jays just were never in the perfect moment in a game to run it. Until Monday.
SIU’s Marcus Domask tied the score at 64-64 with five seconds left. Creighton called timeout and made the decision to put the ball in Nembhard’s hands. A Ryan Kalkbrenner screen near the opposite foul line freed him up. Then Nembhard did the rest.
“Our guys executed it perfectly,” McDermott said during a postgame radio interview on 1620 AM KOZN.
A lot went right down the stretch for Creighton on Monday, despite Southern Illinois briefly taking control of the game.
For much of the second half, it looked like CU had lost a step defensively, unable to grind out stops against a veteran SIU squad. The Salukis outscored the Jays 32-15 during an 11-minute span after halftime — Southern Illinois went 12 of 15 from the floor (and made all five of its free throws) during the momentum-flipping run.
But Creighton responded just in time.
During the under-four-minute timeout, the Bluejay players — McDermott specifically mentioned senior Alex O’Connell speaking up — talked about the importance of raising their intensity and focus level on defense. They knew they were capable of hitting a quick scoring run, if they kept their composure. They’d had big offensive bursts in games and in practice.
Said McDermott: “They stuck with it. They didn’t panic. And gave ourselves a chance at the end.”
The comeback began with a Nembhard free throw at the 3:51 mark. He missed the second one, but senior Ryan Hawkins tapped it out to extend the possession. Nembhard then found O’Connell in the corner for a 3-pointer that cut the deficit in half, 62-58, with 3:39 remaining.
Kalkbrenner delivered two dunks to tie the game at 62-all. He put the Jays ahead 64-62 when he guided in a lob from Nembhard.
“It was a good push at the end,” Kalkbrenner said outside the Creighton locker room. “I’m just really proud of the team for sticking with it. We all played well at the end.”
Kalkbrenner, especially. He scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the final nine minutes of the game, making all four of his free throws during that stretch. He also added five rebounds and five blocks.
He did struggle to find his footing early on, though. So did many of the Jays, who were coming off a disappointing 95-81 defeat against Colorado State on Sunday.
CU scored just four points during the game’s first seven minutes Monday, a start that ended up setting the tone for the evening. SIU dictated the action with its deliberate offensive sets and its sound defensive plan.
Creighton took a 39-30 lead early in the second half. But it never quite had things figured out, and that showed as the Salukis made their surge. Foul trouble disrupted CU’s substitution patterns. Fatigue seemed to set in.
Ultimately, though, the Jays ended up with the ball last.
And Nembhard knew what to do.
“It was huge for us to face some adversity and come out with the win,” Nembhard said during a postgame radio interview on 1620.
The victory was Creighton’s 12th in a row over Southern Illinois, a former Missouri Valley Conference rival. Monday was the first meeting between the two schools since 2013.