Fort Worth, Texas — Creighton coach Greg McDermott called it a chess match because of the way his team defended. Kansas coach Bill Self said winning NCAA Tournament games is never something for which one should apologize.
After 38 minutes of back-and-forth basketball that featured plenty of high moments and low moments for both sides, it was top-seeded Kansas that made the final successful move to push the Jayhawks into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018.
“I’m a little relieved, but I’m also very happy,” Self said after Saturday’s 79-72 victory over No. 9 Creighton at Dickies Arena. “You have to win games when it’s kind of ugly, and I don’t know that we could’ve won this game two months ago. I’m proud of our guys.”
The Jayhawks (30-6) led for 31:14 of Saturday’s slugfest, but only the final minute truly mattered. For one, that was the time when Kansas made the biggest plays of the game while watching the Bluejays (23-12) come up short. For two, every time the Jayhawks nudged their way to a five- or six-point lead, it seemed as if Creighton had an immediate answer. That kept Kansas from getting truly comfortable until the final horn.
“They were battling hard the whole game,” KU senior Ochai Agbaji said of the Bluejays. “Credit to them. But there were just those possessions that we knew we had to get, even late in the stretch, whether it was a rebound or executing a play, just to break away.”
Kansas basketball v. Creighton (NCAA Round of 32)
View a gallery of images from Saturday's game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Creighton Bluejays from their matchup in the round of 32.
Agbaji made one of them. Senior big man David McCormack made the other. And the Jayhawks, who were led by a 20-point performance by Remy Martin — the most he has scored as a Jayhawk — salted the game away at the free throw line with four straight makes in the final 31 seconds.
The Agbaji play came at the end of a long day of shooting the ball. The first-team All-American made just one of his first eight shots and finished 5-for-14 on the day. But the one that mattered most was a no-doubter.
Leading by one (73-72) with a minute to play, Agbaji scooped up a pass intended for Creighton senior Alex O’Connell, who got just one hand on the ball that was thrown behind him.
From there, Agbaji won the sprint to the other end and hammered a vicious dunk with his left hand to put Kansas ahead 75-72.
“I think we caught a break there,” Agbaji said.
O’Connell called the mishap “unfortunate,” and said that the Bluejays’ response was simple.
“When that happened, it was it was just, ‘What's next? What are we going to run next,’” O’Connell said after the loss.
Creighton called timeout with 49.4 seconds to play and had enough time to fire up a game-tying 3-pointer — they made 12 of 28 from downtown on the day — or look for something easy inside.
McDermott’s club chose the latter and freshman point guard Trey Alexander got to the rim on the right side of the lane but paused when McCormack slid over to contest his shot. McCormack, who was limited to 25 minutes because of Creighton’s need to play small, rejected Alexander’s shot attempt with 34 seconds remaining and Martin went to the free throw line.
“That was a play that, it didn’t ice the game, but that basically put it out of reach right there,” Self said of McCormack’s block.
That Martin was a part of the free throw brigade that put Saturday’s second-round win away was fitting given his performance in the first half.
For the second game in a row, the Arizona State transfer who has been on fire this postseason checked into the game midway through the first half and immediately put his stamp all over it.
Kansas trailed when he checked in with 14:13 to play in the first half but went ahead just 29 seconds later. Martin hit two 3-pointers in that stretch, but more than the scoring, it was the energy and pace he brought to the Kansas lineup that had the biggest impact.
“I mean, he was the player of the game, you know, with his energy,” said Wilson after scoring 14 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in 32 minutes Saturday. “For him to step up like this is huge. He makes our team go farther than what we could without him.”
Martin subbed in for starting point guard Dajuan Harris, who was at the center of McDermott’s defensive game plan and actually got the same treatment initially. The Bluejays played way off of both Harris and Martin, almost daring them to shoot in hopes of clogging the lane and making it harder for KU to find driving and passing lanes in the paint.
The strategy worked for a while and KU’s leading scorers — Agbaji and Christian Braun — both had trouble finding their offensive flow in the first half. But Martin eventually made McDermott pay, finishing with 14 points in the first half on 6-of-8 shooting from the floor.
“You don't expect point guards to do that,” Self said. “But that kept us in the game. And then second half we kind of spread the wealth a little bit.”
Said McDermott of what he called an “unconventional” approach to playing defense: “We had to come up with something. I had decided before the game that we were going to stick with it temporarily when Martin came in. Obviously, a mistake on my part, in hindsight.”
Kansas led 39-38 at the half, despite Creighton hitting 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Bluejays were just 4-of-17 from 2-point range in the first half and finished the game shooting 35.6% overall, including 9-of-31 from 2-point range for 29% inside the arc.
“We didn't defend great; don't get me wrong,” Self said. “They still got over 70 (points). But when the offense was bad, we defended and we did some toughness things, especially late-game possessions, which I thought was very positive.”
KU had four players score in double figures on Saturday. Martin and Wilson were joined by Agbaji, who hit for 15 points and Christian Braun, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds in 38 minutes.
Bigger than any of those individual outings, though, was the fact that Kansas won this game as a group by making things much harder for Creighton in the second half and by making winning plays when the outcome was hanging in the balance.
“We've won some games in the NCAA tournament that were a lot like this,” Self said. “And we've also lost some games that were a lot like this. So, we'll take it.”
Next up, KU will face fourth-seeded Providence (27-5) on Friday at United Center in Chicago. The Friars rolled past No. 12 Richmond on Saturday evening.
Friday's clash will mark KU's 32nd appearance in the Sweet 16 and the winner of that game will advance to the Elite Eight, on Sunday, March 27, when a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans will be on the line.