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Creighton outlasts Oregon 86-73 in double OT thriller to earn spot in Sweet 16

By TOM WITHERS / Associated Press
Published: March 23, 2024, 10:56pm

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Before the second overtime began, Greg McDermott looked over at Dana Altman and the two coaches and close friends shared a smile.

This was madness.

“We were both in disbelief about what was transpiring in front of our eyes,” McDermott said.

They weren’t alone.

Steven Ashworth and Ryan Kalkbrenner made 3-pointers in the second overtime as Creighton edged past Altman — the Bluejays’ former coach —- to move into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament with an 86-73 victory over Oregon on Saturday night.

The 3 by the 6-foot-1 Ashworth and a rare one by the 7-1 Kalkbrenner, a defensive specialist, helped the third-seeded Bluejays (25-9) score the first 15 points of the second OT to finally put away the 11th-seeded Ducks (24-12) and end a game that contained enough mayhem for more than one March.

“Epic game,” said McDermott, who took over at Creighton for Altman in 2010 and got his 325th career win, two away from Altman’s school record. “Not sure I’ve been part of one quite like it in 35 years.”

Ashworth scored 21 points, Trey Alexander added 20, Kalkbrenner 19 and Baylor Scheierman 18 for Creighton, which will make its third Sweet 16 appearance in four years when it faces No. 2 seed Tennessee on Friday in the Midwest Regional in Detroit.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Alexander, one of the returnees from Creighton’s Elite Eight team from last year. “We love this group of guys. We love rocking and rolling together. We love everything that comes with the road trips and us just being able to have another week with each other.

“We’re going to try to stay in the moment and just continue play at a level that we feel like we can play at. From there, we’ll just kind of let the dominoes fall where they do.”

It took balance, big shots, clutch free throws and poise for the Bluejays to overcome Oregon’s devastating 1-2 punch of Jermaine Couisnard and N’Faly Dante.

Couisnard, who had 40 points in the first round against South Carolina — his former school — poured in 32 and Dante dominated inside with 28 points and 20 rebounds.

It was the second OT game of the night in PPG Paints Arena after North Carolina State ended Oakland’s Cinderella run with a 79-73 victory in the first game.

This one pitted the two winningest coaches in Creighton history — Altman and McDermott, close friends, occasional golfing buddies and the reason why the Bluejays are a mid-major power and menace inside the brackets.

For two hours, their teams went toe-to-toe with neither giving an inch. It was exhilarating and exhausting as the teams exchanged the lead 14 times. There were nine ties and about as much drama as you can pack into a tournament game.

The Ducks, who rode the Couisnard-Dante tandem to a Pac-12 tourney title, looked cooked in the first overtime, trailing by three after two free throws by Ashworth put Creighton ahead 71-68.

But Couisnard, the silky senior guard from East Chicago, Indiana, came down and calmly drained a long 3-pointer in front of Oregon’s bench to tie it.

“They’ve been playing their tails off all year,” said Altman, who lost three players to season-ending injuries. “We’ve been riding them. So, it was special to watch those two guys. We had our chances. We just made some critical mistakes there in regulation. And that’s on me.”

Creighton had a last chance in the first OT, but Alexander missed a short baseline jumper just before the horn, extending a Saturday night doubleheader on a chilly night in Pittsburgh into Sunday morning.

The second OT was all Creighton.

Ashworth opened it with his 3, and after Couisnard missed a layup, Kalkbrenner, the three-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, took a pass behind the line and drained just his 53rd 3-point attempt all season.

“Mac (McDermott) told me to make 100 (3s) after practice and 100 before in the two practices we had before we came here,” Kalkbrenner said. “That helped prepare me. I got confidence in myself to take that shot, and I know that’s probably the No. 1 shot Mac wanted on that possession.”

After another Couisnard miss, Creighton’s Jasen Green, who had nine rebounds, dunked a putback and the Bluejays were all but flying to the Sweet 16. Ashworth then sealed it by banking in another 3-pointer as Creighton opened an 86-71 lead.

Oregon, which only attempted five free throws, had a chance to put it away in the final minute of regulation, but Dante missed Oregon’s first shot from the line with 26.4 seconds left and the Ducks up two.

Scheireman, who played all 50 minutes, then hit a contested 10-footer in the lane to tie it, and the teams went to OT when Couisnard missed an off-balance drive in the final second.

One of the game’s main subplots was Altman’s on-court reunion with Creighton, where he spent 16 seasons, turned around a program in disarray and helped put the school located in Omaha, Nebraska, on the hoops map.

McDermott has kept it going, and now one of the nation’s most consistent winning teams, the Bluejays have outgrown any mid-major label.

In March, they’re about as big as it gets.

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