LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Creighton coach Greg McDermott understood what his team needed to do if it wanted to make school history.
Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Big East’s two-time defensive player of the year, had to use his 7-foot-1 frame to overwhelm Princeton’s defense. And 3-point specialist Baylor Scheierman needed to show what he could do defensively. Together, they teamed up to end Princeton’s March Madness run.
Kalkbrenner scored 22 points, Scheierman had 21 and sixth-seeded Creighton marched on with an 86-75 victory over the 15th-seeded Tigers on Friday night that sent the Bluejays to their first Elite Eight since being part of an eight-team NCAA Tournament in 1941.
“It’s been amazing, it’s been a dream come true. This is why I came to Creighton in the first place, to make a run with this group of guys,” Scheierman said after making five 3-pointers and harassing Princeton’s perimeter players. “It’s just been an incredible experience. I’m looking forward to continuing that on Sunday.”
Next up for Creighton is No. 5 seed San Diego State in the South Region final, with each team seeking its first Final Four. The surprising matchup could be entertaining because of the teams’ contrasting styles.
For Creighton to advance, Friday’s big stars may need to duplicate their performances against the rugged Aztecs, particularly Kalkbrenner, who was 9 of 12 shooting despite a brief first-half benching because McDermott thought his big man’s attitude needed work.
“He just basically told me, get that frustrated look off my face and play with a little joy and have fun,” Kalkbrenner said. “I fixed it after that.”
Soon after, the Bluejays (24-12) were celebrating.
The Tigers (23-9) were led by Ryan Langborg with 26 points and Ivy League player of the year Tosan Evbuomwan with 24 points, six rebounds and nine assists.
Princeton shook up brackets everywhere by beating No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round, then blew out seventh-seeded Missouri last weekend in Sacramento, California, to make its first Sweet 16 since 1967.
Princeton was seeking become the first Ivy League champ to make the Elite Eight since Penn’s Final Four run in 1979, the first Tigers squad to reach the Final Four since Bill Bradley led them there in 1965, and the second straight No. 15 seed to play in a regional final. Saint Peter’s last year became the first 15 seed to achieve that feat.
The Tigers came up short.
“We had seen great size and length against Arizona, but we hadn’t seen Kalkbrenner’s agility and the speed, the way they were getting him the ball in different positions,” coach Mitch Henderson said. “I thought he was the key. They just got easy, easy baskets when they needed them.”
Princeton’s offense bore no resemblance to the back-cutting, deliberate style that defined the late Pete Carril’s coaching tenure. Instead, the Tigers went toe to toe against fast-paced Creighton until stalling out at the start of the second half.
Creighton used a 9-2 run to take 56-45 lead, a four-minute stretch during which Henderson called two timeouts and Evbuomwan drew his third foul.
Nothing could stop the Bluejays, though. When Princeton cut the deficit to 61-52, Creighton answered with seven more points and the Tigers couldn’t get closer than seven points again.
Now, after beating North Carolina State and third-seeded Baylor in Denver last weekend, drawing confidence from not needing oxygen masks like their opponents, Creighton has a chance at a program-changing victory.
“At the end of the day, there’s just eight teams left, and to be one of those eight teams is just crazy,” Kalkbrenner said. “It’s what you work for all year. It’s what you work for since you get here on campus in the summer, and this is all the hard work paying off now.”
Princeton: The Tigers didn’t make it to Houston but they were among the many lower-seeded standouts during this delightfully unpredictable tournament.
Creighton: The Bluejays’ quick-hitting offense remains their signature. But over McDermott’s 13 seasons, they’ve developed a stronger interior presence — and a defense that makes opponents uncomfortable.
The tourney run could prove advantageous to Evbuomwan’s bank account.
“There’s been some stuff,” he said when asked if he’d been approached with any NIL deals this month. “It’s a fun part of the game now.”