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Gonzaga jumps out to early lead, overwhelms Creighton in Sweet 16 matchup
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Gonzaga jumps out to early lead, overwhelms Creighton in Sweet 16 matchup

Creighton coach Greg McDermott looks back on all the outgoing Bluejay seniors have accomplished.

INDIANAPOLIS — Top-ranked Gonzaga handled Creighton on Sunday the way it's dominated almost every opponent so far in its perfect season, overwhelming the Jays with explosive talent and relentless pace in a Sweet 16 blowout.

It didn't matter that this experienced and gritty CU squad was determined to prove naysayers wrong as a double-digit underdog, aiming to extend an already landmark NCAA tournament run and bolster the group's legendary status within the program's storied history.

The Zags (29-0) have made good teams look ordinary all year.

They did it again Sunday at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Before Creighton got to blink, it trailed 9-2. The deficit quickly grew to 15-6. Then 22-12. Halftime adjustments were made, yet nothing changed. Gonzaga doubled its 10-point advantage nine minutes into the second half en route to a merciless 83-65 victory to end CU's memorable season.

"They play so fast and so efficient, with everything they do," Creighton point guard Marcus Zegarowski said. "It's a tough team, one of the best teams I've ever played."

The Jays (22-9) spent all week preparing to deal with that juggernaut, which boasts the nation's most electric offense. CU's guys felt that their improved defense, which had only allowed two teams to make more than half their shots this year, could give them a chance.

But nothing worked.

They collapsed inside to protect the rim and ended up daring two auxiliary scorers, Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard, to shoot. Those two Bulldogs responded by combining to bury five of their first seven triples.

So CU then extended its defensive alignment along the perimeter. And Gonzaga countered by going to work inside, ultimately finishing the game with a 75.8% conversion rate on 2-pointers (25 of 33) and 50 points in the paint.

"Once you get stretched out against them, you're asking for trouble," coach Greg McDermott said.

As it turned out, exploited game plans aside, the Jays probably would have needed an elite shooting performance, anyway.

And they made just five of their 23 3-point tries — 21.7% from behind the arc, their second-worst mark of the year.

The subpar showing will sting for some time with this motivated CU squad, which knew that it had to be at or near its best to hang with a Gonzaga team that's defeated all but one of its foes by double digits and that's vying to become the first undefeated national champion since 1976.

The Jays never did quit, but the day's finality was clear well before the game clock hit zero.

Zegarowski paced behind the Creighton huddle during the last media timeout, at one point bending over and smothering his head inside his jersey. Damien Jefferson wiped the sweat off his face and glanced up at the rafters as time ticked away on his Bluejay career.

But even enchased by misery of defeat, they were able to appreciate the significance of their remarkable two-year run, Zegarowski said.

This nucleus secured the program's first-ever regular-season Big East crown last season. It finished with 46 wins in two years, including a 9-5 mark against ranked teams. It twice peaked at No. 7 in the AP poll. It reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974.

The Jays had a small-ball squad whose identity became defined by its hustle and its heart, and those highlight-reel exclamation points. They just didn't show that too often against a locked-in Gonzaga team.

"Everyone's hurting, obviously," Zegarowski said. As a competitor, you lose, and you have that fire inside of you, but bigger picture, we had a season, and we got to playing in a great environment in front of our fans."

They won't get the chance to do that again.

Jefferson, Mitch Ballock and Denzel Mahoney are seniors. Zegarowski could turn pro. If the early portion of the transfer-heavy offseason is any indication, there could be some more attrition, too.

But the Jays weren't ready to look ahead immediately afterward. McDermott said he told the group to reflect and enjoy what they accomplished together, not to sulk after a bad day on the court or consider what's next.

They had already cemented their legacies before Sunday, and that's what they plan to celebrate now.

"To be able to make history during the season is something special and something that I'll never forget," Zegarowski said.

Notes

>> Point guard Marcus Zegarowski would have been a first- or second-team All-American had he been healthy all year.

Coach Greg McDermott was convinced of that Sunday.

Just look at what Zegarowski did this month, McDermott said. The junior averaged 18.3 points (on 55% shooting), 3.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game.

But because Zegarowski was working his way back from offseason surgery early in the year, then dealing with a January hamstring pull, he didn't get the national acclaim he deserved, McDermott said.

"Without the injuries he had to fight through this year, the guy would have been a slam-dunk All-American again, first or second team, because he's played at such a high level and impacted winning in so many different ways," McDermott said.

Zegarowski, an honorable mention AP All-American, became the first in program history to score at least 17 points in his first three NCAA tournament games. He had a team-high 19 points in Sunday's 83-65 loss.

Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard said Zegarowski's quickness created some problems for his team. Coach Mark Few said Zegarowski's game is difficult to simulate in practice.

'He's one of those players that, when you see him live, you're like, whoa, OK," Few said.

Zegarowski will have a decision to make this offseason. He could enter the NBA draft or return to Creighton.

>> CU went four months without a COVID-19 pause, and Zegarowski thinks his team should take pride in that.

The Jays had to alter their schedule during the season's first week because of multiple positive tests within the program, and they pulled out of an early-season tournament.

But after that? They played every game while adhering to social distancing protocols, undergoing constant testing and doing their best to stay isolated. They spent the past month in hotel rooms, on the road and in Omaha.

"It was a grind," Zegarowski said. "I'm just so, so proud of everybody involved. It was such a tough year. ... Guys were really on point, not only on the court, but off the court."

>> Creighton trailed Gonzaga by 10 at halftime Sunday, and if the Jays were going to have a shot, they had to open the second half strong.

They didn't.

CU managed two points on its first eight possessions after the break. It gave up a dunk and two second-chance putbacks during that stretch.

The Zags extended their advantage to 51-35 four minutes into that half. They were ahead by 20 five minutes later.

"The start of the second half was huge for us," McDermott said. "We really felt like, for us to have an opportunity, we had to win that first four-minute timeout. And instead they were able to take that lead from 10 to 14, and then it's an uphill battle against a team like that."

>> McDermott thanked his players for remaining committed to their goals after he made a hurtful analogy during a locker-room speech last month.

McDermott compared the program to a plantation after a Feb. 27 loss. He apologized and faced a four-day suspension. The players spent time processing their emotions and working to find a way forward.

In the end, the Jays reached the Sweet 16. And the players deserve the credit for that, the coach said.

"I'll forever be indebted to them for accepting me for who I am," McDermott said. "(And for accepting) that I'm a person that makes mistakes and that I'm going to continue to work to be a better person as a result of my mistake."


Photos: Creighton vs. Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament

Omaha World-Herald: Local Sports

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