By STEVE MEGARGEE, Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — McKenzie Fujan never feared that she'd have to carry Creighton to its first NCAA tournament victory since 1994 all by herself.
She scored a career-high 24 points, knowing her teammates would come through in a 61-56 first-round win over Syracuse on Saturday. Sure enough, Sarah Nelson had 14 of her 17 points after halftime and Marissa Janning scored all 10 of her points in the second period.
"I wasn't worried," Fujan said. "All year, we've had one person go off and the rest of us kind of caught up. I trust my teammates to get going, and they did."
Fujan shot 8 of 13 overall and 6 of 10 from 3-point range as Creighton (25-7) prevented Syracuse (24-8), the No. 7 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, from earning its first NCAA tournament win in school history.
Syracuse rallied from a 10-point deficit in the last five minutes, but Elashier Hall's attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left went off the right side of the rim with three seconds left. Nelson added two free throws with three-tenths of a second left.
"Honestly, right now, I'm kind of in shock," said Syracuse center Kayla Alexander, who had 23 points and eight rebounds and ended her career as the Orange's all-time leading scorer. "This isn't the way we thought, planned or imagined this would end. We had such high expectations, and this wasn't how we expected to finish."
Fujan kept Creighton afloat for most of the first half by shooting 6 of 7 overall and 5 of 6 from 3-point range. She scored her team's first 11 points and had 17 by halftime.
The 5-foot-11 guard entered the tournament averaging just 9.3 points, but she had scored a career-high 22 in a Missouri Valley Conference championship game loss to Illinois State and carried that momentum over to the NCAA tournament.
"I think it's just confidence," Fujan said. "My team has done a great job finding me. I don't know. I guess once you hit one, it's easier to hit the next few."
Fujan wasn't getting much help from the other Bluejays early on.
Creighton didn't get a point from someone other than Fujan until Alyssa Kamphaus made a free throw with 6:46 left in the first half. The first Creighton basket from one of Fujan's teammates came when Carli Tritz sank a 3-pointer with 3:31 left in the half. Creighton, which ranks second nationally with 9.3 3-pointers per game, missed its first eight 3-point attempts and 11 of 12 shots overall.
Creighton started out by relying almost entirely on the 3-point shot against Syracuse's zone defense. In the first half, Creighton attempted 24 shots from beyond the arc and only six from two-point range. Somehow, the game was still tied 24-24 at halftime.
"Other than McKenzie, we couldn't throw it in the ocean the first 15 minutes, yet we were still in the game," Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. "I said that's a positive because at some point, somebody else is going to start making baskets."
Creighton finished 11 of 36 from 3-point range.
Syracuse shot 3 of 19 from beyond the arc and only 31 percent (18 of 58) overall. Creighton also outrebounded the taller Syracuse team 43-35.
"That was our No. 1 priority that our coached talked about over and over," Nelson said. "He (said) if we can win the rebounding battle, we'll win the game."
Nelson's 3-pointer gave Creighton a 55-45 lead with only 4:54 remaining, but the Bluejays wouldn't make another basket the rest of the game.
Syracuse got to 57-56 on Carmen Tyson-Thomas' layup with 19 seconds left. Fujan hit both ends of a 1-and-1 to make it 59-56 with 16 seconds remaining. The Orange still had a chance to tie the game until Hall's shot missed the mark.
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