Zach Norvell Jr.’s second-half explosion sinks Creighton’s upset bid against No. 1 Gonzaga

Zach Norvell Jr.’s second-half explosion sinks Creighton’s upset bid against No. 1 Gonzaga
World-Herald News Service

Gonzaga’s shot-making sophomore, who torched Creighton last year, took two dribbles toward the baseline before stepping back to launch an off-balance 3-pointer from the corner.

It was the type of shot that CU had to live with in Saturday’s shootout, particularly with so many scorers spacing the floor for the Zags’ high-powered attack.

The only problem for the Bluejays?

Zach Norvell Jr. specializes in nailing tough jumpers. He buried that fadeaway 3 during a pivotal second-half sequence. Moments later, after he hit another 3 to force a Creighton timeout, sophomore Corey Kispert was chest-bumping him, yelling: “That’s what you do!”

Norvell finished with 28 points — 23 after halftime — helping the nation’s top-ranked team overcome a seven-point halftime hole to outlast Creighton 103-92 in front of the fifth-largest crowd in Bluejay history.

“He changed the game,” coach Greg McDermott said of Norvell. “It changes everything with how you defend inside — because he can shoot it 6 feet behind the line.”

McDermott said he told his team at halftime that the Zags were going to try to get Norvell going.

Sure enough, the first Bulldog play after the break was designed for the 6-foot-5 guard, who scored all 21 of his points in the second half of the Zags’ 91-74 win over Creighton last year in Spokane, Washington. On Saturday, Norvell was at it again — he caught a pass on the run and darted through the heart of CU’s defense for a three-point play to begin the final 20 minutes. He buried a 3-pointer on the next possession.

Norvell was feeling it from there.

He made five of his first six 3-pointers in the second half — after going 1 of 6 from deep in the first half. His last 3 put Gonzaga up 82-73 with 9:37 left. The Jays never got closer than five from there.

“I was just trying to stay poised, confident, through all the rough patches we had,” Norvell said.

Creighton tested the Zags Saturday.

The Bluejays were energized in the program’s third time hosting the No. 1 team.

The Jays ignited the 18,759 fans by hitting their first four shots. They went ahead 34-23 on sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander’s short jumper in transition, prompting Gonzaga to call a timeout. They led by seven at the break.

But the Zags, boosted by Norvell’s aggressiveness, never wilted in the second half. They jumped in front for the first time since the opening moments when Kispert’s 3-pointer made it 66-65.

The teams traded buckets for the next two minutes — the lead changed five more times.

Then Norvell took over.

And the Jays went cold.

Creighton was 1 of 11 from the floor and committed three turnovers during a decisive second- half stretch. Gonzaga capitalized with a 16-3 run to put the game away.

Alexander led the Jays with 27 points. Damien Jefferson added 15.

The Zags, who had trouble with the Jays’ smaller lineup, wanted to run CU’s guards off the 3-point arc, forcing them to make plays inside — where Gonzaga could use its height advantage. That was the strategy for much of the game, coach Mark Few said. But he thought his players were able to follow through with it during the latter portion of the second half.

Creighton may have forced things, too, a couple of players said.

Ultimately, though, the Jays couldn’t hit the big-time jumpers to match the production of Gonzaga’s streaky shooters.

“I guess, we got into panic mode, when we really just should have slowed down,” junior Davion Mintz said. “A couple bad shots, including myself. And a few turnovers. That really got us.”

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