GREENSBORO, N.C. — Creighton coach Jim Flanery recently heard someone call Morgan Maly a “bench player.” It made him stop.
Yes, she was the Big East Sixth Player of the Year, an honor necessarily reserved for someone who works from the bench. Yes, she has come off the bench in 31 of 32 games for the Bluejays. But Maly? A bench player? That isn’t how he sees her.
“She’s not a bench player,” Flanery explained. “We just don’t start her.”
Against No. 3 Iowa State on Friday, it was easy to see how such a contradiction in terms could feel perfectly logical. As usual, Maly came off the bench. As usual, she quickly stood out as a scoring threat who bore little resemblance to any conventional idea of a “bench player.” But that’s where the usual fare ended. Maly leveled up her game to lead the Bluejays in scoring with 21, a career high, which was enough to help launch this No. 10 seed to its first Elite Eight.
“That’s kind of what I’m used to,” Maly said afterwards, grinning and soaked from a celebratory dousing from her teammates. “Coming off the bench, just letting it fly. My teammates got me great looks, just kind of read the defense, and once the first one or two go down, it gives me a lot of confidence to keep letting it go.”
The 76–68 win extends what was already a fairytale run for Creighton, just the fourth double-digit women’s seed ever to make it to the Elite Eight. After taking down Iowa and the nation’s leading scorer, Caitlin Clark, the Bluejays were able to stop Iowa State and a similarly explosive player, Ashley Joens. A back-and-forth first half sent the teams to the locker room tied after two quarters of play. But Creighton came out for the second half reinvigorated, with its offense flowing, and it never trailed again.
It showed Iowa State what previous tournament opponents had already learned: Take this low seed lightly at your own risk.
“We tried to go smaller to keep the ball in front of us, and that was a struggle. We had real matchup problems, and we weren’t scoring enough to offset it,” said Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly. “We tried a lot of different things, but to their credit, they always had an answer for it.”
Creighton’s offense has stood out as a selling point all season long: It’s among the top five teams in the country in effective field goal percentage and in points per scoring attempt. And the Bluejays can be tremendously difficult to match up with. Part of that is simply because they’re deep. (Case in point: The ability to bring a player like Maly off the bench.) For instance, their leading scorer this year, Emma Ronsiek, wasn’t getting shots to fall early against Iowa State; she ended up sitting for the entirety of the fourth quarter. What could have been a nightmare situation for many coaches—your top scoring threat running cold in a do-or-die—was just fine for Flanery. He had other choices to work with. And Iowa State didn’t have much to answer with.
“I think the newness of the tournament helps,” Flanery said. “I really believe from a style standpoint we’re just a little different. When you talk about what we do on offense, we're a little different than what most people see, and I think that helps us in a tournament format where they only have x number of days to prepare.”
A big part of that is their ball movement. Creighton led the nation this year in assists per game at 20.5; while it couldn’t quite reach that against Iowa State, with 15, it still showed just how vexing its passing game can be for an opponent who’s unaccustomed to it.
“We have a lot of freedom in practice,” said guard Tatum Rembao, who scored 19 and assisted four. “Once you start to build that chemistry, you kind of know who is going to back cut, who is going to curl, who is going to bump and pop, and who you want to bump and pop. So it definitely comes with a lot of practice.”
Rembao, a fifth-year senior, is the only player on this roster who was part of the last Bluejays team to so much as qualify for the tournament: In her freshman year, they lost in the second round. Since then, Creighton has been through a full cycle of ups and downs, but it now sits higher than it ever has, as a Cinderella story in the Elite Eight.
That means the Bluejays will next face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina on Sunday. But they insist they’re here to keep dancing. They’ve already taken down No. 2 and No. 3 in this region. Why not No. 1?
“We’re going to swing away,” Flanery said. “We’re going to prepare the right way, and then we’re going to come swing.”
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