When Creighton defeated California on Sunday, it wasn't because Doug McDermott went superhuman for 40 minutes or because Ethan Wragge and company shot the Bears out of the gym, rather it was the Jays' focus and determination at the opposite end that lifted CU to 9-2.
The final box score shows only one steal and zero blocks from Creighton, but it also shows that Greg McDermott's squad limited a Cal team that returned four starters from last season's NCAA Tournament team to a season-low point total on just 36.4 percent shooting, in the 68-54 CU victory. The Bluejays limited Mike Montgomery's squad to less than a point per minute in the opening half.
"To hold them to 19 points with most of their regular rotation in place was a heck of effort," said the fourth-year coach of the Jays. "That's a sign that the guys understood the game plan and understood what they were supposed to do. It's one thing to understand it, it's another thing to execute it. Tonight, fortunately, we were able to do both."
As McDermott mentioned, the Bears were not at full strength for Sunday night's tip. Hours before the game, Cal announced that presumed started Ricky Kreklow would miss the game with a wrist injury. Prized freshman Jabari Bird had scored five points and grabbed four boards before he left the game for good after suffering an ankle injury. Neither Kreklow nor Bird was the primary focus for the Jays, however, that honor went to the nation's 11th leading rebounder entering the game, Richard Solomon.
"He's a really good player," said McDermott of the Bears' senior center. "He can score on anyone one-on-one, so, you know, we practiced on it all week, every single day. That was a huge emphasis, to take him out of the game, and I think we all bought in. It wasn't just the two post guys that were double teaming him, it was the whole group knowing where to be at when the ball came out of the trap."
Creighton's strategy paid off. Solomon finished his 27 minutes of action with six points and as many rebounds, well below his season averages of 12 and 10.6, respectively. With Solomon contained, the Bears had to look to outside the painted rectangle to muster up some offense. Even though Justin Cobbs (13) and Tyrone Wallace (12) led Cal in scoring, they combined to make just 8-of-23 shots from the field.
"Obviously, they have a couple of guys that can shoot it well from the perimeter and I thought the guards were really locked in on that," said Grant Gibbs. "Then, Austin (Chatman) and Avery (Dingman) did a really good job on Cobbs, knowing what he likes to do."
Gibbs also called the defensive performance the Bluejays' best of the season to date. It could have hardly come at a better time, as the Bluejays offense shared some struggles of its own. Ethan Wragge's triple with 17:18 remaining in the first half was the first bucket of the game, and CU didn't reach double figures until Will Artino's layup dropped with just over 11 minutes left in the half.
When McDermott sunk a pair of free throws more than 15 minutes into the game, they were his third and fourth points. The two-time All-American closed the half on a personal 6-0 run, which spanned the final two-plus minutes of the half and concluded with a buzzer-beating tip in. Even though he had reached double-figures by halftime, Creighton's all-time lead scorer tried a different approach after missing out on scoring opportunities he normally cashes in on.
"I was just missing some shots I usually make there to start," said the senior. "Maybe I was rushing it a little bit. I finally got comfortable there after I got one to go. I was just trying to get going by crashing the offensive glass and try and get baskets that way."
McDermott added 10 more points in the second half and led all players with 20 points and 11 rebounds. The battle on the glass, which CU won 39-31, was also of high importance after Cal out-boarded the Jays 53-38 a year ago in Berkeley.
"We watched the film of our game last year, and it's basically them bullying us on the glass," said McDermott. "We took that to heart, and we made sure (David) Kravish and Solomon didn't get any offensive boards, you know. They got a few, but for the most part we did a really good job of boxing out."
In a night full of on-court surprises, Coach McDermott was most pleased by the way his team defended. With just a contest with Chicago State sitting between Creighton and its first BIG EAST game on New Years Eve, Coach McDermott is excited to see his team building on Sunday's performance.
"As I've said before, we had the ball with 30 seconds left, down three, against San Diego State and got a play going to the basket with a chance to cut it to one or possibly tie it, and then we had the lead inside of two minutes against George Washington," said McDermott. "Two games that we have to find a way to finish. So, it's not like we're… we're not far from being perfect, but we still have a lot of room to grow, and that is what is exciting. It's really important that we get back here from Christmas and get locked in as quickly as we can so that 9-2 becomes 10-2 before conference play."