Amid the bright lights of Vegas, Friday night's battle between Wisconsin and No. 14 Creighton had the feel of late season conference showdown rather than an early season tip-off tourney. You had star power in Creighton's Doug McDermott, a loud partisan crowd, and two teams not afraid to mix things up physically.
Wisconsin (3-2) was by no means overmatched. In fact, senior forward Jared Berggren had his way with the Bluejay defense on a career night. Nevertheless, Creighton (5-0) proved to simply be better. And it was not because of McDermott's game-high 30 points. No, McDermott's supporting cast just outdueled Berggren's, piercing the Badger defense in an 84-74 win at the Las Vegas Invitational.
McDermott's impressive array of inside moves were as good as advertised, but the Badgers made him work for almost everything. McDermott needed 23 shots -- plus four free throws in the final minutes when UW was deliberately fouling -- to get those 30 points. His teammates, meanwhile, were extremely poised and hit timely shots time and time again.
The back breaker came with 4:29 left to play when first-year point guard Austin Chatman found himself guarded by Berggren on a switch and beat the big man to the hole for a layup, extending Creighton's lead to 72-64. Wisconsin grabbed three offensive rebounds on the very next possession but failed to score.
Mike Bruesewitz fouled out when Creighton got the ball back, kicking off a string of 10 straight converted Blue Jay free throws to put the game away.
Chatman played intelligently all night. The 6'0" sophomore seemingly made each of his shots at a critical juncture that quelled Badger momentum. Chatman finished 5-of-7 and scored 14 points (a career-high) to go along with three rebounds and three assists.
Berggren was superb for Wisconsin, punishing the Jays inside and out with 27 points and seven rebounds. Though the Badgers led 39-38 at halftime, they found themselves down eight points with 13:31 remaining when Berggren strapped the team on his back. The senior scored 10 straight points -- including a poster-worthy rebound and slam in Will Artino's face -- to pull Wisconsin even with Creighton at 55 apiece with 10 minutes left.
But when Berggren took a breather, Wisconsin was left with Ben Brust, George Marshall, Zak Showalter, Ryan Evans and Frank Kaminsky on the floor. No Berggren meant no direction on offense. Marshall put on his blinders during a wasted possession that ended when McDermott blocked his shot.
Next up for Creighton was Ethan Wragge, whose 3-pointer snatched back momentum, thrilling the pro-Bluejay crowd inside the Orleans Arena. Wragge found enough space with McDermott loosening the Badger defense to sink 4-of-7 from 3-point land, plus three more free throws when fouled on another 3-pointer en route to 17 points.
In all, Berggren would score 14 of UW's 17 points over an 8-minute stretch to give the Badgers their final lead at 60-58. Wragge's third triple moments later gave the Bluejays back the lead for good. Still, Berggren's performance prompted at least one national basketball writer to issue a mea culpa over Twitter.
Offensive rebounding kept Creighton close in the first half. The Jays shot only 37.8% but grabbed 13 offensive boards compared to six for Wisconsin. Creighton out-rebounded Wisconsin overall, 40-34.
After the break, Creighton caught fire, hitting 13-of-21 (61.9%) in the second half.
Perhaps most impressive was how Creighton head coach Greg McDermott uses set plays to put his son Doug in position to score. Despite only shooting 6-of-15 int he first half, the younger McDermott found plenty of easy buckets throughout the game just because of excellent positioning and well-executed passes.
Wisconsin shot 43.8% in the first half, but only 38.2% in the second half. Minus Berggren's 9-for-14 shooting, UW shot just 33% as a team, and fired three airballs.
We knew heading into the game that the Badgers needed a great effort from all of their regulars to upset Creighton and that just didn't happen.
A visibly frustrated Brust missed all five of his 3-point attempts and finished 2-of-12 from the floor before fouling out with seven rebounds. However, he was also involved in a number of rebounding situations where the Badgers had position, but either bumped into each other or mishandled the rebound, leading to an easy second chance for Creighton.
Marshall shot well, but five of his 13 points came after the game was decided. Curiously, Sam Dekker only played six minutes after halftime, scoring all eight of his points in the first half.
With the loss, Wisconsin is set to face Arkansas and its vaunted "40 minutes of hell" redux on Saturday at 7 p.m. CST. The Razorbacks were surprised by Arizona State, 83-68, earlier on Friday, giving the Badgers another chance to rectify their defense against high-scoring teams. Arkansas is averaging over 85 points-per-game.
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