NEW ORLEANS, La. - Marcelus Kemp has been a playmaker all season for Nevada, but Friday might have been the finest two hours of his career.
Kemp shook off a below-average first half, and made some big plays in the second half and overtime period to lead the 13th-ranked and seventh-seeded Wolf Pack to a 77-71 win over 10th-seeded Creighton in the first round of the NCAA South Regional at New Orleans Arena.
The win not only sent Nevada, 29-4, into a second-round match-up at 11:15 a.m. Sunday with Memphis, 31-3, but also set a school record for wins.
The game was tied at 59-all at the end of regulation, and Nevada outscored Creighton 18-12 in the extra 5-minute period to grab the win, and Kemp had nine in that span.
Kemp had just eight points at the half and was only 2-for-7 from the field. He went 7-for-13 in the final 25 minutes of the game to finish with a game-high 27 points.
And, he got plenty of support from his co-perimeter players, Kyle Shiloh (10 points, 7 rebounds) and Ramon Sessions (16 points, 5 rebounds). All three of them had to step up when Nick Fazekas (17 points, 11 rebounds) fouled out with 3:16 left in overtime.
"Certainly Marcelus is a playmaker and we let him have freedom to make plays," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "We are balanced, and we found a way to get different guys shots and our balance offensively was the key.
"It was a great college basketball game. I have a great deal of respect for them and I know how they feel over there. Both teams were evenly matched as I said going in, and it was a hard-fought win. We had a lot of guys play well and our balance was key for us."
Creighton coach Dana Altman tossed compliments Kemp's way, too.
"The game was Kemp making some plays," Altman said. "He did a great job. Nate (Funk) played strong, but I thought Kemp was the difference.
"There were a couple of times we were just about ready, and he made the big shot."
Kemp started his offensive surge with less than six minutes left in regulation.
Kemp's bank shot sliced Creighton's lead to 57-54 with 5:49 left, and Fazekas drained a free throw to make it 57-55. Anthony Tolliver scored on a putback for a 59-55 lead with 4:05.
That would be the Bluejays' last point.
In a span of 58 seconds, Kemp and Fazekas scored to tie the game at 59 with 2:26 left. Nick Funk, who led Creighton with 23 points, misfired on the next possession, giving the Pack a chance to go ahead.
The Pack had four chances, but couldn't connect. That sequence took so long, that by the time Nevada turned the ball over, there was just 19 seconds left. The Bluejays pushed the ball up the floor, but Funk missed a tough shot in traffic, and with bodies flying everywhere, Sessions collared the rebound. Shiloh had just enough time to throw up a 60-footer as time expired.
"We put ourselves in good position to win the game," Funk said. "We had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but it just didn't happen. They outplayed us in the overtime period. They rebounded and made plays. We didn't."
Kemp, who led all scorers with 27 points and all rebounders with 12, started the overtime with a putback that snapped the 59-all tie.
After Creighton failed to score on two straight possessions, Fazekas drained two straight free throws to make it 63-59.
Nick Porter converted a three-point play to slice the lead to 63-62 with 3:33 left, but Kemp got it back to a two-possession game with a 3-pointer from the left side with 3:18 left for a 66-62 lead.
Funk made it 66-64 with two free throws. Shiloh (10 points) scooped up a loose ball for a lay-up with 2:33 left, and Sessions (16 points) scored on a lay-up about a minute later for a 70-64 advantage.
After Tolliver (15 points) scored to make it 70-66, Sessions made another huge play that was reminiscent of a great play he made against Gonzaga.
With the shot clock running down, Sessions scored on another lay-up with the shot clock showing just two seconds left. That gave Nevada a six-point lead.
"Ramon was disappointed that he turned the ball over earlier, but he has the heart of a lion and has made a lot of big plays for our program over the years," Fox said. "That layup was one of the bigger ones. It was a difficult shot and he had just enough English on the ball to get it to go in."
"I was trying to get to the hole," Sessions said. "They cut me off, but I was able to put it in the hole."
Funk made it a 3-pointer to make it 72-69 with 31.3 left, but Kemp drained four straight free throws in the final 29 seconds to decide the outcome.
While Kemp made a big difference, so did Nevada's rebounding. Nevada had 15 offensive rebounds and converted those into 15 second-chance points.
"It (rebounding) was a big part of the game, and I thought going in we would have the advantage," Fox said. "We had to force them into misses to get those rebounds. We had one bad stretch where we had three turnovers in a row and they got the lead. We had better defense and rebounded better. We locked in defensively from that point forward."
Altman agreed with Fox's assessment of the contest.
"The bottom line is that they outrebounded us by 17," Altman said. "That was definitely the difference in the game."
Creighton's inability to finish the deal at the end of regulation and the slow start in overtime wiped out a pretty solid performance in the first half.
The Bluejays' match-up zone defense gave Nevada fits, and the Wolf Pack struggled at times, although they did shoot 41 percent from the field.
A 23-11 run, spanning the final 6 1/2 minutes of the first half and the first five-plus minutes of the second half enabled the Bluejays to build a 43-37 lead.
The teams went back and forth after Nevada tied the game at 43, and no more than four points separated the teams the rest of the way in regulation. Still, Nevada didn't handle the ball well, and that has to change.
"Everyone that we had talked to prior to the game had talked about this defense that they had been playing the last few weeks and how nobody had been able to solve it," Fox said. "We knew it would be an issue and we did turn it over way too much.
"They have a good defensive team and made us make mistakes. We will have to do much better in that area against Memphis. We will have to take care of the basketball. Memphis is a team that uses a pressure defense and it is going to be a key for us to play better offensively."
For seniors Fazekas, Shiloh and Denis Ikovlev, the win is a chance to play at least one more game.
"It feels great," Fazekas said. "Now I feel we can get into a rhythm."
And just maybe do some more damage in the tournament.