Ryan Kalkbrenner made up for lost time. He made it from the lane. From the wing. From the free-throw line. And he even made it from beyond the 3-point arc.
“It’s just going to be a lot of fun to play in the second round,” Creighton’s junior center said Friday after scoring 31 points to power the sixth-seeded Bluejays to a 72-63 win over No. 11 seed North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Ball Arena.
“It’s a big opportunity and a big honor to be in that game. And (I’m) happy to be able to play in it this time.”
The 7-foot-1 St. Louis native missed Creighton’s second-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament a year ago after sustaining a knee injury during the Jays’ first-round victory over San Diego State. Without their big man, Creighton was eliminated by Kansas, the eventual national champion, and outrebounded by 16.
Kalkbrenner looked spry from the get-go Friday, accounting for nine of the Jays’ first 18 points. His 3-point play after an alley-scoop-and-score put the No. 6 seed up 18-12 with 7:44 to play in the opening half.
“Nothing surprises me from Kalk,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “He’s just continued to get better and better and better. We were joking going into the locker room — I said, ‘I can’t believe you missed a free throw.’ He shot 47, 48% as a freshman. Two years later, he’s on the line with the game on the line late in the game, and he’s knocking down free throws.”
The Jays star connected on 11 of 14 field goal attempts, including a trey from the top of the arc, and on eight of nine free throws.
N.C. State (23-11) struggled to contain Kalkbrenner, particularly in transition. The big man drew 10 fouls in all, while Wolfpack big men D.J. Burns Jr. and Ebenezer Dowuona were whistled for four fouls each.
“Obviously, (Burns) is much different than their other big guys,” Kalkbrenner noted. “(I) just had the same mindset, trying to get deep catches, trying to just finish around the rim — don’t make it too complicated on myself by changing things up when different players come in.”
The big man’s big day was buffered by 10-point games from Ryan Nembhard, Arthur Kaluma and Baylor Scheierman, who drained two big treys in the final 2:23.
The Wolfpack were one of the last teams picked for the field of 68, but they sure didn’t play like it coming out of the halftime break.
N.C. State led 37-30 on Burns Jr.’s layup, capping a 9-0 run to open the second half. Creighton (22-12) countered with a 9-0 surge of its own over the next three minutes — seven of those points from Kalkbrenner — to grab the lead again. Creighton extended its margin with a 9-3 run, punctuated by a Kalkbrenner lay-in with 7:13 left to go.
The Pack wouldn’t go away.
N.C. State responded with treys on back-to-back possessions, pulling to within three points on Jack Clark’s triple with 5:44 left in the tilt.
The Pack’s Terquavion Smith netted a game-high 32 points, but the two most emphatic came with 4:43 left on the clock. The Greenville, N.C, native drove on Kalkbrenner, who had nine inches on him, posterizing the center for a dunk that got N.C. State to within three points again, 58-55. The sophomore then flexed with both arms and screamed, WWE-style, as he landed back on the floor.
Two solid offenses — Creighton entered the tourney ranked No. 28 nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com; N.C. State ranked 36th — struggled to find their respective shooting strokes early on. Scheierman drained a trey on Creighton’s opening possession for a 3-0 lead — and it proved to be the only 3-pointer converted by either side for the rest of the half. Creighton led a defensive rock fight 28-26 at the break.
Expect more fireworks when the Jays meet the Bears, who earlier Friday drained eight 3-pointers at Ball Arena in routing UC Santa Barbara, 74-56.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready for Baylor,” McDermott said. “But you know, in this tournament, you put the entirety of your focus into Game 1, and you just have to survive and advance.”
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