Nothing was a surprise anymore. Arkansas forward Trevon Brazile’s 3 practically forced a heated game — possibly college basketball’s best to this point — to boil over. Then came Creighton sophomore Ryan Nembhard, the Jays’ point-guard aficionado, who rose to the occasion in their toughest test yet.
In that instant, he rose to the rim. He’d weaseled by pesky, do-it-all Arkansas freshman Anthony Black for a free lane. No one challenged him. Brazile modestly stunted before sealing off Ryan Kalkbrenner. Nembhard left the ground, almost freezing in air along with the remainder of the Lahaina Civic Center before cocking his arm back seemingly out of socket.
It was an emphatic play that put an exclamation point on a career night for Nembhard, and a 90-87 Creighton win that had already delivered so many shocking plays, fans’ hearts nearly stopped in the Maui Invitational crowd. CU will face no. 14 Arizona – a 87-70 winner over San Diego State – in Wednesday night’s title game.
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“That’s a big part about our team, we played in a lot of big time games last year,” Nembhard said. “A lot of high intensity games. Games with a lot on the line, especially later in the year. I think we’re just all poised in those situations. We’ll all remain calm. We know what we have to do in order to win games.”
Nembhard’s slam was hardly the last play to raise blood pressure. Brazile followed with another 3. Sophomore Arthur Kaluma took a page from the Razorbacks’ book, lifting for second and third jumps for a putback that forced Arkansas coach Eric Musselman to call a timeout. The rest of the way was a free-throw competition, with the Razorbacks hoping the Jays would give them just enough room to steal the game.
Through the first 20 minutes, it felt bound to brew to that point. The tenth-ranked Jays (6-0) looked every bit like the offensive juggernaut they’ve been advertised as for months. No. 9 Arkansas (4-1) boasted one of the nation’s best defenses entering the game. Tuesday was no different, which made things all that more challenging for CU.
Creighton continued his display of unreal shooting touch, shooting 54.8% from the field and going 5-of-10 from deep. Even with lengthy defenders like Black and fellow Jordan Walsh, the Jays relied on Nembhard and senior Baylor Scheierman to initiate offense.
The two didn’t disappoint.
Nembhard, who finished with a career-high 25 points, six rebounds and five assists, made all the right plays. He instantly relocated around the 3-point line for easy looks. He created more opportunities than even his five dimes will speak for. And he jawed with the 6-foot-7 Black along the way.
“He’s just grown so much,” CU coach Greg McDermott said of Nembhard. “He really dictates our tempo with his speed with the basketball. Obviously, his shooting’s been really good in this tournament. I don’t know what it is now, he’s got 30-some assists and five or six turnovers on the year.”
Scheierman finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists. He drilled several pivotal 3s, including one virtually from O’ahu to create some second-half separation. It opened things up for Kalkbrenner, who caused Arkansas’ frontcourt foul trouble en route to 21 points.
Nembhard and Scheierman proved to be class-A distributors, continuously pumping blood into CU’s offense when it needed it.
There were times the Jays needed it.
Walsh was as disruptive as anyone, forcing broken plays and turnovers, with Creighton finishing with 17. Six of those came from Kaluma, who had Walsh in his grill most of the night. Arkansas stuck around, but CU stood tall behind an efficient offensive half and solid defensive stretches.
There were points where Black felt inevitable. The stops to get in transition, the layups through a heap of contact, the flashes as a big initiator. The freshman gave Creighton hell, and CU felt it throughout the second half. He finished with 26 points, six rebounds and six assists, generating paint touches and helping set up his teammate, Ricky Council IV, who erupted for 24 points.
The two single-handedly kept the Razorbacks around, even during a strange stretch where Creighton had his fair share of whistles go his way. A flagrant here, a technical on Arkansas’ bench there. Musselman was on the brink of becoming Hawaii’s most recent volcano to erupt.
Still, the Razorbacks delivered blows to stick around. But it’d be free throws — both during that stretch and by the end of the game — that helped Creighton outlast Arkansas. It only made sense that Nembhard, who lifted enough eyebrows already, had a healthy hand in sealing the deal at the free-throw line behind going 10-for-12 there.
“Last year at this time he struggled with some turnovers,” McDermott said. “So I think he’s got a better feel for what we’re asking him to do, and that’s been good to see.
“But he plays with a lot of confidence. I think his teammates really respect him, so they look him in the eye in the huddle and listen to what he has to say.”
Photos: Creighton men’s basketball hosts UC Riverside