DENVER — Creighton couldn’t ask for much more from Ryan Kalkbrenner.
Even after all he had done, the junior center provided a sequence that was emblematic of his career-best performance with just over 10 minutes to play.
Kalkbrenner was in all the right spots Friday afternoon. Neither of NC State’s big men had a solution. Yet just when the 11th-seeded Wolfpack began to make things interesting, Ryan Nembhard ran in transition with one goal in mind.
He and the big man have a connection. This time wasn’t any different.
Kalkbrenner soared for an alley-oop — one of several en route to a career-high 31 points — and tapped his head as he streaked back down the court. With the way six-seeded Creighton’s 72-63 win trended, Kalkbrenner got well acquainted with the top of plenty of heads.
Then as star NC State guard Terquavion Smith charged down the floor to take the rim head on, there was Kalkbrenner to show off his 7-foot-1 frame for a stop. Who else would it be?
“Nothing surprises me from Kalk,” coach Greg McDermott said. “He's just continued to get better and better and better. We were joking going into the locker room, I said, ‘I can't believe you missed a free throw.’ ... He's just improved in every facet of the game.”
McDermott’s playful jab was almost warranted.
Kalkbrenner shot 11 of 14 from the field and 8 of 9 from the foul line, hitting a 3 and corralling seven boards — all while tormenting Wolfpack big man D.J. Burns, who finished with two points and four fouls.
CU was wary of Burns, a 6-9, 275-pound atypical center with playmaking chops and intriguing scoring. Kalkbrenner stifled him in their one-on-one matchups. At least that was when Burns was on the floor not sitting with foul trouble.
Earlier in the week, NC State coach Kevin Keatts and guards Smith and Jarkel Joiner all pitched different names when asked if anyone in the ACC posed the challenge Kalkbrenner did.
There wasn’t anyone in the league who looked like Friday’s version of Kalkbrenner: A 7-foot star who could score at will while rarely holding the ball for longer that a second.
“They kept giving him angles,” sophomore Arthur Kaluma said. “If he has an angle and he catches the ball, it’s almost a bucket every single time. So us finding those angles, finding those pockets — it made him a monster.”
NC State (23-11) had a beast of its own.
Smith was fearless. Nothing was going to stand between him and the rim, especially after one of Creighton’s many first-half misses from deep wound up in his hands.
He kept charging as the Bluejays backpedaled, and when he reached his destination, he flailed into contact to finish difficult layups or hit short jumpers.
Creighton (22-12) was comfortable with running the Wolfpack, and specifically Smith, off the 3-point line. Even if it turned into a pretty good game of clips for the projected NBA draft pick.
McDermott threw his arms up.
“Yeah, I mean what do you do?” McDermott said. “He was effective against our drop coverage. ... We tried to make him do things that he doesn’t normally do and to his credit, he was able to make us pay part of the time.”
But Smith’s 32 points on 27 shots were fine with the coach. As long as CU honed in on his teammates.
By the end of the night, NC State shot 32.4% from the field outside of Smith.
As Smith periodically exploded, CU was looking for some form of offense. For at least one of its 3s to fall. To create separation and not watch Smith single-handedly lead an upset.
With five minutes to play, the Jays were 2 of 18 from 3-point range. One belonged to Kalkbrenner. The Jays needed a run to put away Smith’s Wolfpack and reach Sunday's 6:10 p.m. second-round matchup with Baylor.
Creighton found it in Kalkbrenner.
CU shot 51.7% in the second half, continuously feeding the big man as he feasted on the opposing frontcourt. Sophomores Trey Alexander and Nembhard found their way to the rim for pivotal finishes around contact.
And after a chunk of the day that left plenty to be desired, senior Baylor Scheierman connected on two of the biggest shots of his Creighton career: A 3 with just over two minutes to play and a 2 just shy of the corner.
Thirty seconds later, Alexander delivered a final blow.
He fought around NC State’s screens all afternoon. “The big boy set some big screens,” he noted. But he only needed to evade one.
With 1:36 to play, Alexander navigated a pick and got to Smith’s hip. He saw Kalkbrenner retreat to his man and knew what was coming.
His rearview contests hadn’t mattered a ton to Smith late. But Alexander got a piece of Smith’s final shot, and the last laugh.
As Kalkbrenner drilled one final free throw with 35 seconds to play and a Round of 32 berth locked up against the third-seeded Bears, the Creighton faithful roared in Denver. The big fella and Creighton's run would live to see another day.