GREENSBORO, N.C. — Creighton’s players gathered for a group hug near midcourt as the final seconds ticked down to the horn, then Tatum Rembao flung the ball skyward in jubilation.
Moments later, the Bluejays migrated to share the celebration with fans and family near courtside.
“The past two weeks hasn’t felt real,” Morgan Maly said.
Believe it, Morgan. The 10th-seeded Bluejays are within a game of the Final Four.
She scored a career-high 21 points in Creighton’s 76-68 win over Iowa State on Friday night as the Bluejays became only the fourth double-digit seed to reach a women’s NCAA Tournament regional final.
Rembao added 19 for the Bluejays, who entered the Greensboro Region semifinals savoring the program’s first run to the Sweet 16. Now, Creighton has joined Lamar in 1991 and Oregon in 2017 as 10-seeds that pushed to the Elite Eight. Gonzaga in 2011 was the lowest-seeded ever at No. 11 to reach the Elite Eight.
“This team just continues to amaze me,” longtime Creighton coach Jim Flanery said.
The challenge ahead is even bigger for the upstart team: a matchup with No. 1 overall tournament seed South Carolina for a trip to the Final Four.
Creighton (23-9), which upset second-seeded Iowa in the second round, shot 55% after halftime with six 3-pointers. As third-seeded Iowa State (28-7) made a desperate comeback to cut a 13-point deficit to three, the Bluejays maintained control by knocking down enough free throws to keep the Cyclones and Associated Press second-team All-American Ashley Joens at arm’s distance.
Rembao was key in that, making 6 of 8 in the final 45 seconds.
“I told them, you want to keep advancing because that’s the goal,” Flanery said. “But I also want to just keep coaching this team. So that’s kind of what I was thinking, was I just love coaching this team because it’s different people, different nights.”
Emily Ryan had 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists to lead Iowa State, which shot just 38%. Joens had 14 points but made just 3 of 11 shots and got much of her production at the line (7 of 7).
Iowa State was in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010.
“We knew going into this game basketball is a make shot-miss-shot game,” longtime Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly said. “Especially with these two teams. They made a lot of tough shots tonight, and, unfortunately, we couldn’t get the ball in the basket when we needed it.”
Creighton: The Bluejays had showed plenty of composure by beating the Hawkeyes last weekend on the road, led by Lauren Jensen’s late 3-pointer. This time, they played with confidence in the third quarter and didn’t panic as the Cyclones inched closer and closer.
Iowa State: Iowa State’s win against Georgia last weekend provided a measure of redemption for a team that missed on a chance to go to last year’s Sweet 16 by losing on a last-second overtime shot to Texas A&M. Fennelly said he had thanked his players “50 times” for getting him back to this point and encouraged them to enjoy the moment. But they couldn’t quite follow that with another step to the program’s first Elite Eight since 2009.
Creighton’s biggest lead, 66-53, came on back-to-back drives from near the 3-point arc from Payton Brotzki – with no helpside rotation to stop her – followed by a big 3-pointer from Rembao at the 7:16 mark.
Creighton made 12 of 19 shots (63.2%) with five 3s in the third quarter.
Joens came in averaging 20.5 points, but she headed to the bench with two fouls midway through the second quarter and never got in much of a groove.
She had just five points on 1-for-5 shooting by the break and went scoreless in the fourth quarter despite playing all 10 minutes.
“They did a great job defensively just staying on us, kind of knowing our personnel and how to guard,” Joens said.
SAVORING THE MOMENT
Flanery eventually made his way to the postgame celebration but was more subdued than his players, offering a big smile and two thumbs-up to the crowd.
The players couldn’t wait for the locker room to bring out the water bottles, instead dousing Maly as she did a TV interview at midcourt, and then again when she rejoined the team.
“I just love playing with this team, and it makes the celebrations so much better,” said Maly, who made 7 of 10 shots with three 3-pointers.