After blowout victories against Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay, questions lingered about how the Hoosiers’ defense, ball-handling and added size would fare against stiffer competition.
“It definitely was a huge test,” sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. said. “You could tell the level of play that they brought.”
Blackmon scored a team-high 19 points, including a quartet of 3-pointers. He punished Creighton’s 2-3 zone for going underneath on IU’s screens, which gave him the space to get his shot off uncontested.
However, IU’s defense was what propelled the Hoosiers to their third victory of the season, the sophomore said.
“I feel like if we wouldn’t have had that defense, it could’ve been an up-and-down game, and it could’ve went either way,” Blackmon Jr. said.
Creighton entered Thursday averaging 98 points per game, fueled by 3-point shooting. Nearly half of the Bluejays’ shot attempts in their previous two outings came from behind the arc where they had converted 40 percent of their attempts.
IU’s perimeter defense took away Creighton’s outside shooting as the Bluejays shot just three of 18 from long range. They didn’t convert on any of their second-half attempts.
“We knew, and they learned quickly, that we were playing a very, very tough, physical opponent,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “I thought our guys really responded.”
IU responded by breaking the game open with a 12-0 run bookended by a pair of threes from freshman center Thomas Bryant and senior guard Nick Zeisloft.
It was Bryant’s first 3-pointer of his career. The freshman’s only misses of the night came from beyond the arc as he went a perfect six of six on two-point attempts. He has yet to miss a shot attempted from inside the arc this season.
Bryant recorded 17 points and seven rebounds and added four blocks in the second half. He displayed aggressiveness in the post as he frequently cleared room to operate and shouted for his teammates to pass him the ball.
After snagging a missed 3-pointer from Creighton, Bryant beat the Bluejays’ transition defense down the floor and sophomore guard Robert Johnson found him for an easy layup. The freshman sprinted back on defense, where he turned to IU’s pep band and the student section to pump them up with his arms.
The crowd exploded.
“I always had that passion in me, ever since I started playing in grade school,” Bryant said. “I had to do something. I wasn’t the most talented player, so I had to do something to separate myself from others, and the passion, the drive and the will to play, was just the difference and I always kept it with me.”
On Thursday, Bryant he balanced the strong play of IU’s backcourt tandem of Blackmon and senior guard Yogi Ferrell, who flirted with a triple-double.
The Hoosiers took a 19-point lead into halftime, 51-32, and never led by fewer than 17 points in the second half.
Creighton shot 50 percent in the first half and went to the foul line 16 times, but the Bluejays didn’t have enough firepower outside Watson to pull out a victory in Bloomington.
“They’ve got a lot of strengths,” Crean said. “Fortunately our guys were able to handle that.”