LAHAINA — At the time, it seemed more than fitting for Oumar Ballo to hit home an apparent dagger at 2:21 to feature in Arizona’s 81-79 win over Creighton in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship game.
It turned out to be the championship game winner, but things got very interesting before the final horn sounded at the Lahaina Civic Center. Ballo’s impressive basket came from a skillful pass from Kerr Kriisa to make it 81-72.
The No. 14 Wildcats would not score another goal, but they held off a determined 7-0 run by the No. 10 Bluejays to end the game.
The final point was the first of two free throws by Ryan Nembhard with two seconds left – he missed the second on purpose, but Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis rebounded and the Wildcats were able to time out.
“Of course I’m super proud of these guys,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd. “They played their butts off. These tournaments are tough. To play three games in three days against three really good teams with very different styles and end up at the top like we did says a lot about this group.”
“Ball, Ball, Ball” Chants erupted at the Lahaina Civic Center after his last goal and he was named the tournament’s most valuable player by the media.
Ballo shot 27-34 for the tournament, including 14-17 in the championship game when he had 30 points and 13 rebounds.
As his entire team watched in the media room as he was presented with the MVP trophy, Ballo beamed from ear to ear.
“Probably. Well, I didn’t know that, but that’s a bit crazy.” Ballo said when asked if the Wildcats’ victories here over Cincinnati, No. 17 San Diego State and Creighton are the best he’s ever played. “But it might be, honestly.”
Point guard Kriisa quickly chimed in: “It was the rims.”
Ballo answered laughing: “Yeah, probably. Yeah, the rim was really soft, so I had a lot of balls rolling there.”
After Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman scored a 3 with 1:45 left to put the Bluejays at 81-77, chants turned to “Let’s Go Jays” throughout the LCC.
Ryan Kalkbrenner grabbed a free throw to make it 81-78 with 46.8 seconds left and set the stage for the final frantic moments.
Courtney Ramey missed a 3 for the Wildcats and Scheierman grabbed the rebound with 18 seconds left. Creighton coach Greg McDermott called a timeout with 7.4 seconds left before Nembhard was fouled.
The largest first-half lead was four until Arizona went on a 6-0 run in a 101-second span to take the lead to 32-25 after Ballo hooked a shot with 5:55 left.
The up-and-down pace of the game featured several athletic plays but none were more impressive than Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma, who chased after Ramey at 4:18 to land a layup in the first half until Kaluma hit it near the edge away.
The lead grew to 39-30 at halftime and quickly to 45-32, just 2:28 into the second half when Ramey sank a knight to end a quick break.
Kaluma had another skywalking moment when he blew past the defense left at 13:42 to put the Bluejays 52-45.
Ramey sank a long 3 to make it 59-45 at 12:19. A running jumper from Kriisa gave Arizona a 70-58 lead with 6:07 before Creighton charged back.
Arizona joins five-time champions Duke, North Carolina (4), Kansas (3) and Syracuse (3) as three-time champions of this event – the Wildcats have previously won here in 2000 and 2014.
Kriisa was proud of Ballo, but he passed on the credit.
“He definitely deserved that but I don’t want to give Oumar too much credit now because… Pelle (Larsson) played hard in defence, Courtney made great shots. That was a team effort.” said Kriisa. “So Oumar doesn’t need to get up above the clouds now because… next Thursday we play again and then this tournament is already over and we have to start playing again.”
Kriisa had 13 points, nine assists and just one turnover, and Tubelis added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Ramey finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
In the end, Lloyd admitted he became increasingly concerned as the game eased up.
“Well, I just kept looking at the score and the time and our timeouts and thought we had enough distance to sort it out.” said Lloyd. “But you’re just hoping for a miss. They hate to say that, you gotta make them miss But one of those shots ricochets and we rebound, you know, the game could have been over a little earlier. But they didn’t. They went inside.
“I think we had one or two maybe bad decisions that were a little bit frustrating but we will learn from that. We practice situations a lot.”
Lloyd said the win – and frantic finish – would help his team as the season progressed.
“So a lot of situations came up there and I felt comfortable not taking time off. I wanted our boys to rock a little.” he said. “I want them to find out for themselves. We practice for a reason. They don’t need me to come over and write everything for them because they are smart players. We think we’re doing a good job with the situations.
“I think on the track we at least handled the pressing situations, the last free throw situation, things like that really well.”
McDermott was happy with the week — his team came back with an 88-77 win over No. 21 Texas Tech on Monday and then survived in a 90-87 thriller at No. 9 Arkansas on Tuesday.
Nembhard had 20 points and six assists, Kalkbrenner added 16 points and five rebounds, Trey Alexander had 15 points and seven rebounds, and Scheierman had 11 points and 11 rebounds for Creighton.
“Very proud of my team” said McDermott. “We showed some courage to put ourselves back in it. The end of the first half was really probably pretty critical. I think we were up 26-25 and then we hit two of our last 16 to… end the half. And then you lost nine, and then it felt like they would pull it back to nine or ten in the second half every time we got it to three or four, and we just couldn’t quite crack the seal to sort of get them to where they were really, really nervous.
“And then we did some things pretty well on the track to give us a chance, on the free throw line there to get it down to two and then ran a game where we thought we could get a good look there tie on a throw 3, and obviously it didn’t work.”
* Robert Collias can be reached at [email protected]
Kaluma 2-6 2-2 6, Kalkbrenner 5-8 5-6 16, Alexander 6-11 2-2 15, Nembhard 6-13 6-8 20, Scheiermann 4-10 0-0 11, Farabello 1-3 0 -1 2, Miller 3-4 0-0 9, King 0-3 0-0 0, Mitchell 0-1 0-0 0. Overall 27-59 15-19 79.
A. Tubelis 6:10 0:0 12, Ballo 14:17 2:5 30, Kriisa 6:14 0:0 13, Larsson 2:4 0:0 5, Ramey 4:12 0:0 10, Henderson 2- 5 2-2 7, Bal 1-3 0-0 2, Veesaar 1-3 0-0 2, Boswell 0-0 0-0 0. Overall 36-68 4-7 81.
Halftime – Arizona 39-30. 3-Point Goals – Creighton 10-25 (Miller 3-4, Scheierman 3-7, Nembhard 2-4, Alexander 1-3, Kalkbrenner 1-3, Farabello 0-2, Kaluma 0-2), Arizona 5- 16 (2-6 Ramey, 1-2 Henderson, 1-2 Larsson, 1-4 Kriisa, 0-1 Bal, 0-1 Veesaar). Rebounds – Creighton 28 (Scheierman 11), Arizona 36 (Ballo 13). Assists – Creighton 15 (Nembhard 6), Arizona 21 (Kriisa 9). Total Fouls – Creighton 11, Arizona 18.A – 2,400 (2,400).
All Tournament Team
Oumar Ballo, Arizona (MVP); Ryan Nembhard, Creighton; Azoulis tubelis, Arizona; Anthony Black, Arkansas; Daniel Bacho, Texas Tech