After injury, Creighton’s Nembhard fueling March Madness run

March 21, 2023 GMT
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Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard gestures near the end of the team's second-round college basketball game against Baylor in the men's NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/John Leyba)
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Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard gestures near the end of the team's second-round college basketball game against Baylor in the men's NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/John Leyba)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Ryan Nembhard was injured and watched from the bench during Creighton’s two-game stay in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

The point guard is front and center for the sixth-seeded Bluejays this year, having just played the game of his life to lead them into the Sweet 16.

“It’s a feeling you can’t describe,” Nembhard said of the turnabout.

Nembhard scored a career-high 30 points in an 85-76 win over third-seeded Baylor on Sunday night. The victory sends Creighton to Louisville, Kentucky, to play No. 15 seed Princeton in a South Region semifinal Friday. Win that game, and the Bluejays would be in the Elite Eight for the first time.

“I was obviously out last year and it was tough for me to watch, but I’m super excited to get back out with my guys this year,” he said. “Our goal this year was to get back to a game like this, and we’re super happy we could pull out the win.”

Nembhard was the 2022 Big East freshman of the year but went out with two weeks left in the regular season when he broke his right wrist trying to steal a pass against St. John’s.

The Bluejays went 4-4 without Nembhard and earned a No. 9 NCAA seed after losing to Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game. With Trey Alexander running the point in place of Nembhard, the Bluejays beat San Diego State in overtime before exiting with a 79-72 loss to eventual national champion Kansas.

Nembhard, the brother of Indiana Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard, came back fully healthy this season and has started all 35 games. The player nicknamed “R2” — to avoid confusion with Ryan Kalkbrenner — was third in the Big East in assist-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1) and free-throw shooting (87.8%).

In a lineup with five double-digit scorers, he went into the NCAA Tournament as the team’s fourth option behind Kalkbrenner, Alexander and Baylor Scheierman.

“To have a point guard like R2, he gets our offense going,” Alexander said. “I feel like he’s at the heart of the flow of the offense, and I feel like him as a player kind of gets us going as a team. Anytime you look down the court, you see him just speeding past anybody or you see him finding the open guy or talking you through the offense. He’s just a winner.”

Nembhard turned into a scorer with Kalkbrenner and Scheierman combining for only four points in the second half. Nembhard had 19 of his 30 points after halftime. On four occasions, Baylor pulled within 10 points and Nembhard either hit 3-pointers or scored from the free-throw line to restore a double-digit lead. He made three 3-pointers in a row during a stretch in which he shot 5 of 6 overall.

“Everybody knew that he was going to have a big night sooner or later,” Alexander said, “but at the end of the day, he just wants to win.”

Nembhard moved to Florida to attend Montverde Academy for high school, and by his senior year he was rated the No. 62 national recruit by ESPN. Montverde was 69-4 in Nembhard’s three years, and he chose Creighton over Florida and Stanford.

Creighton coach Greg McDermott said he and assistant Alan Huss first saw Nembhard at an event in Las Vegas while they were there to scout another player.

“I said, ‘Who’s that little guy from Canada?’” McDermott said.

McDermott and Huss expected Nembhard to go to Florida, where Andrew Nembhard started his career. Once Andrew transferred to Gonzaga, Creighton knew it had a chance to land Ryan.

“He’s never going to get too high when things are going well, and he’s never going to get too low if he’s struggling,” McDermott said. “To me that’s one of the characteristics that has to be with a great point guard, and he has it.”

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