DENVER – The rims really aren’t bigger in Denver. It just felt that way to Ryan Nembhard.
The sophomore guard had a career-high 30 points and No. 6 seed Creighton found its shooting touch to beat third-seeded Baylor 85-76 on Sunday night and earn a spot in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons.
With Baylor heavily focused on containing big man Ryan Kalkbrenner, Nembhard and the Bluejays went to work from outside. They shot 45.8% from 3-point range after a 3-for-20 showing in a first-round win over North Carolina State. They also went 22 of 22 from the free throw line, including 10 for 10 from Nembhard.
“The rim felt a little bit bigger tonight,” Nembhard said after a performance that included four 3-pointers. “Luckily, I made some shots.”
The Bluejays (23-12) will meet 15th-seeded Princeton in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton reached the South Region semifinals with wins over Arizona and Missouri.
“We definitely don’t care who we’re going against. We respect everybody,” Nembhard said. “At the end of the day, we think we’re just as good as anybody in the country.”
LJ Cryer finished with 30 points for Baylor (23-11), which lost in the second round for the second consecutive year after winning the championship in 2021. Big 12 freshman of the year Keyonte George was held to seven points, well below his average of 15.6.
George is projected as a potential lottery pick – should he decide to leave after this season.
“Nobody likes losing, but our coaching staff is really proud of this group,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Disappointed we couldn’t keep playing, but proud of them.”
Leading by double digits, the Bluejays extended the lead – and pumped up the crowd – on back-to-back 3-pointers from Francisco Farabello and Nembhard.
The Bears cut it to 79-70 with around 3 minutes remaining, but turnovers kept them from getting any closer.
“We weren’t able to get enough stops to pull off the game,” said Baylor senior Adam Flagler.
Trey Alexander added 17 points for Creighton, with Arthur Kaluma scoring 11 and Kalkbrenner 10.
Nembhard, whose brother, Andrew, plays for the Indiana Pacers, was 8 of 13 from the field. His previous high was 25 against Arkansas on Nov. 22.
And to think, Creighton coach Greg McDermott wasn’t even all that sure he was going to be able to recruit Nembhard to Omaha, Nebraska.
McDermott figured Nembhard, a Canadian, might be headed to Florida, where Nembhard’s brother played before going to Gonzaga.
“I fell in love with him the first time I watched him play,” McDermott said. “His expression never changes. He has the type of demeanor that you want the rest of the team to look to because he’s never going to be rattled.”
The Jays certainly march to his beat.
“It’s always good to have a guy like him on the team who’s not only just a point guard, but he’s a leader and we look up to him – even though he’s shorter than all of us,” Kaluma cracked.
McDermott couldn’t help but reflect on his 2014 squad that lost to Baylor 85-55 in their second game of the tournament.
“Nine years ago, we lost to Baylor with a really special group,” McDermott said. “Tonight, we beat Baylor with a really special group.”
ON THE MARK
Creighton’s perfect night at the line ties for the best free throw percentage (minimum of 15 attempts) in tournament history. It matches Fordham’s mark on March 20, 1971, against South Carolina, according to research by an NCAA statistician.
“We spend some time after practice shooting free throws, but there’s no secret sauce that you have,” McDermott said.
Creighton: Improved to 17-24 all-time in the tournament.
Baylor: The Bears are 19-10 in the NCAA Tournament under coach Scott Drew.
Not much recent between Creighton and Princeton. The Jays did beat the Tigers 63-54 on Dec. 29, 1961.