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Creighton’s size, physicality, early energy too much for No. 24 BYU

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BYU’s Fousseyni Traore has his shot blocked by Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner.

BYU’s Fousseyni Traore (45) has his shot blocked by Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner (11) during a game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

Matt Gade, for the Deseret News

It was an early morning game Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and No. 24 BYU was on the receiving end of an abrupt wake-up call in the first half against a physical Creighton team.

The Bluejays controlled the paint, jumped out to a big first-half lead and ultimately hung on to beat the Cougars 83-71 in a game that tipped off at 10 a.m. MST. 

BYU knocked down a season-high 12 3-pointers, but that wasn’t enough against this rugged Big East opponent. 

“The physicality of the game took us by surprise a little bit, which is really disappointing for us,” said Cougar coach Mark Pope.

“We’re usually the ones that are bringing the physicality to the game, and we were getting pushed around today. It took us a long time to finally respond. That’s on me, getting the guys ready to play the game right.”

Creighton forward Ryan Hawkins scored 25 points — including four 3-pointers — and grabbed eight rebounds.

Three other Bluejays scored in double figures, including 17 from Ryan Nembhard, the younger brother of Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard, and 15 from Alex O’Connell.

But the player that probably had the biggest impact on the outcome was Creighton’s 7-foot-1 center, Ryan Kalkbrenner, who scored 14 points, made 6 of 7 shots from the floor, collected nine rebounds and had five blocks.

He made life difficult for the smaller Cougars inside. 

“He’s a load down there,” Pope said of Kalkbrenner. “When you’re undersized and you’re getting beat down the floor, that’s a problem.”

“He was just such a factor on the defensive end of the floor, both blocking shots and changing shots,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. 

While BYU hit 12 of 23 3-pointers, it made only 8 of 23 layups. 

“We’re traditionally a great 2s team. We kind of thrive at 2-point field goals. I felt like we were rushed,” Pope said. “When you face a shot-blocker that’s as mobile as (Kalkbrenner) is, we just didn’t take advantage of it. Our decision-making downhill was really poor.” 

From the outset, Creighton (8-2) took command, sprinting out to a 10-2 lead, although the Cougars cut the deficit to 12-8 and 14-11 and stayed close for the first 11 minutes. 

But the Bluejays went on a 12-0 run to take a 36-19 advantage. Five straight points by Alex Barcello made it 36-24, but a barrage of Creighton blocks — the Bluejays blocked seven shots in the first half — and field goals almost buried BYU.

With 4:03 left until halftime, Creighton led 44-24.

The Cougars couldn’t stop Hawkins, who scored 19 first-half points, including drilling 4 of 6 from 3-point range. 

“(Hawkins) was a handful for us in the first half,” Pope said. “We couldn’t find any answers. He’s a big-time shooter and he’s got great range.”

And at intermission, the Bluejays were up 48-30. 

“Their switching slowed us down. We let their shot-blocker roam free,” Pope said. “We got a little bit rushed. We became impatient. That was tough for us in the first half.”

In the second half, BYU settled down and outscored Creighton 41-35.

Barcello scored 18 of his game-high 28 points over the final 20 minutes. Forward Seneca Knight finished with a season-high 13 points, including three 3-pointers. Gideon George collected a game-high 11 boards. 

The Cougars whittled a 21-point second-half gap down to 10 points at 63-53 with eight minutes remaining, but BYU couldn’t cut the deficit under double digits. 

Hawkins’ resounding transition dunk pushed the lead back 16 at 70-54 with 5:25 remaining. Creighton didn’t score a field goal over the final four minutes, but the Cougars couldn’t make up the difference.

For the game, BYU had 15 turnovers and the Bluejays scored 17 points off of them. 

Pope liked the way his team kept battling in the second half, though. 

“This team’s DNA is to fight. They certainly did fight. This is a team that’s not ever going to go away, and I’m super proud of that,” he told BYU Radio.

“We shot the ball well again. We rebounded the ball better in the second half. I’m disappointed with how we cared for the ball. Not just the 15 turnovers, but the shot selection at the rim was super disappointing. That’s something we’ll get better at.”

BYU played a bigger lineup in the second half, which helped. Freshmen Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki showed some improvement.

Traore scored four points and had seven rebounds.

“Fouss and Atiki were a little overwhelmed in the first half. They were more solid in the second half,” Pope said. “When we put a bigger lineup on the floor in the second half, it was helpful. Those rookies are going to have to carry a burden for us and get better fast, and they are getting better fast.”

BYU visits Weber State next Saturday.