ANAHEIM, Calif. — One of Creighton's strengths the past two seasons in nonconference play has been keeping paper cuts from turning into major hemorrhages.
The Bluejays lost just once outside of league play in the 2011-12 season and twice last season. Creighton bounced back from each defeat with a dominant effort, winning its next games by an average of 24 points.
That's what makes Tuesday's game at Long Beach State so important for the Bluejays. Creighton enters the 9 p.m. game at Walter Pyramid having lost back-to-back nonconference games for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
Doug McDermott was a freshman that season. Ethan Wragge was battling a foot injury that sidelined him most of the season, and Grant Gibbs was sitting out after transferring from Gonzaga.
“We've never had this early in the year since I've been here with Grant and Ethan,” McDermott said. “We have to be the leaders and carry them through these tough times. I'm looking forward to going against Long Beach State.”
McDermott scored fewer than 10 points for just the ninth time in 117 career games when he finished with seven in Sunday's 60-53 loss to George Washington. That setback in the third-place game of the Wooden Legacy tournament came two days after Creighton had dropped an 86-80 decision to San Diego State.
The Aztecs wound up winning the tournament, defeating Marquette in Sunday's championship game. By the time San Diego State was celebrating the title, Creighton coach Greg McDermott and his staff were already digging into Long Beach State and trying to figure out how to shake off the setback to George Washington.
The Bluejays came out flat against the Colonials and fell behind by 13 points late in the first half. They picked it up defensively in the second half, but it wasn't enough to overcome a subpar shooting night for one of the country's most accurate teams.
The Bluejays shot 33.9 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range. Creighton has scored fewer points just twice in McDermott's career, collecting just 50 in losses to Duke in last season's NCAA tournament and to Missouri State in the 2009 Missouri Valley tournament.
“We're the type of team that has to be totally invested in our game plan, in our execution and our attention to detail,” Gibbs said. “We don't have unbelievable athletes that are going to clean things up at the rim. Every mistake we make on the scouting report gives up a layup, and that's completely on us.
“Moving forward, we have to be completely dialed in. That's what has made us good the last two years. Any time we slip away from it with our concentration and our execution, that's when we play poorly.”
What made the George Washington loss even harder to take is that in spite of how poorly the Bluejays had played, Creighton still led 53-50 with just more than two minutes to play. The Colonials then scored the final 10 points, six on free throws in the final 14 seconds.
Creighton came up empty on its final five possessions to turn what could have been a grind-it-out win into a disappointing loss. The outcome underscored that razor-thin margin for error that Gibbs referred to in describing Creighton's style of play.
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That margin shrinks somewhat when the Bluejays employ a smaller lineup of McDermott and Wragge up front.
“That lineup gives us versatility and flexibility on offense, but it also leaves us without a rim protector on defense,” Greg McDermott said. “That means we have to be pretty perfect in the other areas of the game.
“Had we defended the first 10 or 12 minutes against George Washington as we did the second half, we would have been fine. We just didn't quite have the urgency defensively that we needed. It got better, but unfortunately, it wasn't good enough.''
Creighton needs to avoid a similar performance against Long Beach State, even though the 49ers have won just once in their first eight games. They have dropped road games at Arizona, Kansas State and Washington (in double overtime) as well as well losing games to Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth and Kansas State in a tournament in Puerto Rico.
Long Beach's lone win came in a 71-59 victory over Hawaii Pacific in its season opener. The 49ers' strength of schedule is ranked eighth at this point in the season.
“They probably should have beaten Washington at Washington, they let one get away against Loyola Marymount and they played VCU really tough for 35 minutes,” Greg McDermott said. “I see a real dangerous team when I watch them.
“At this point in time, I'm really more concerned about what we do. We have to be locked in and ready to go when that ball goes up tomorrow night.”
The Bluejays were in their first two games of the tournament. They blew out to a big lead against Arizona State in posting a 28-point victory. Against San Diego State, Creighton owned a 12-point lead after seven minutes.
The Aztecs controlled the middle portions of the game, taking a 19-point lead early in the second half. A late surge got Creighton back within three with 27 seconds to play, but the Bluejays couldn't quite finish the rally.
Now they must pick themselves off the court after slipping up against George Washington.
“It's up to ourselves to look in the mirror and hold each other accountable,” Wragge said. “We can't feel sorry for ourselves and we just have to start digging and get ourselves out of this.”
» Notes: Creighton practiced for 75 minutes Monday, with the five players who saw the most action in the tournament limited to mainly shooting and some work against the scout team. The players spent the afternoon at Huntington Beach before returning to the team hotel for meetings and film study. … Mike Caffey leads Long Beach in scoring with a 16.6 average. He's also averaging 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game. “He's a very talented point guard that can score in a lot of different ways,” Greg McDermott said. … Creighton holds a 4-1 edge in the series and won 81-79 in a 2011 BracketBusters meeting in Omaha. McDermott is 4-0 in BracketBusters return games at Northern Iowa and Creighton. … Wragge scored 15 points against San Diego State and led the Bluejays with 16 against George Washington. It's the first time in his career that he's posted back-to-back games of 15 points or more, and it made him the first Bluejay reserve with consecutive 15-point games since Cavel Witter in 2009. … The two losses dropped Creighton out of the national rankings. The Bluejays are receiving votes in both polls after being ranked 18th last week in the coaches' poll and 20th in the Associated Press rankings.