Led by transfer Lauren Jensen, No. 10 Creighton enjoying role as NCAA Tournament spoiler

Creighton Blue Jays guard Rachael Saunders (13) hugs Creighton Blue Jays guard Lauren Jensen (15) after winning at Iowa.
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The No. 10-seeded Creighton Bluejays will look to add another line or two to the record books this weekend when they make their first Sweet 16 appearance in school history at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Making its first tournament start in four years, Creighton advanced out of the second round for the first time in eight appearances with an upset win over No. 2-seed Iowa last Sunday, becoming just the fifth No. 10 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.

Headlining the Bluejays’ squad is sophomore guard Lauren Jensen, who made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 64-62 on their own court. However, Jensen wasn’t exactly in unfamiliar territory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after playing at Iowa last season.

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“Obviously I’m pretty familiar with the arena because I played here all of last year, but I felt like that definitely helped,” she said. “On the flipside, there’s also some nerves with that because I’m wearing a different color this year, but I feel like it did help.”

As a freshman at Iowa last season, Jensen appeared in 17 games and scored 23 total points, while this year at Creighton, she’s made 31 starts and posted a season-high, single-game point total of 23. Twice.

“Right away from summer workouts, this team welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home and a part of the team, and I’m just so grateful for that,” said Jensen. “To be able to do that with them here today is just so great.”

“Those last few minutes had to be magical and special, and we’re super proud of her and we’re super proud that she’s part of our program,” said Creighton coach Jim Flanery regarding his sophomore transfer.

Flanery said he was impressed right off the bat with Jensen, who would regularly show up for voluntary 6 a.m. practice sessions in the fall.

“The number of times that Lauren was in there was impressive to me,” said Flanery, who holds a 378-252 overall record in 20 seasons at Creighton. “So as a coach, when you have somebody who comes into your program and you’re trying to get to know them, and you see them when you walk in the gym at 6 a.m. and you see somebody who’s got the shooting gun set up and putting up jumpers, that resonates.”

Also key to Creighton’s momentum last weekend – which included a first-round victory over No. 7-seed Colorado – was its resounding defense, which held Iowa sophomore and Division 1 scoring leader Caitlin Clark to a season-low 15 points. The Bluejays finished with a 52-37 advantage on the boards, led by Morgan Maly with 13, and also posted 19 second-chance points to Iowa’s eight.

“Rebounding is a huge focus, not in just this game but in every single game throughout the year,” said Creighton senior guard Payton Brotzki after scoring 13 points Sunday. “Even this morning, we talked about it a lot. Super proud of us for getting that done.”

Creighton looks to spoil another Hawkeye State team’s dance on Friday in Greensboro, N.C., where it will face No. 3-seed Iowa State. The Iowa State Cyclones boast one of the best offenses in the country, ranking No. 2 in three-point field goals made, three-pointers per game and three-pointer percentage, making nearly 39 percent of their attempts. But Creighton stepped up from behind the arc vs. Iowa as well, making 10-of-34 threes (29.41 percent) compared to Iowa’s 5-of-22 (22.7 percent).

No. 10 South Dakota will also be competing in the Sweet 16 after the Coyotes ousted No. 2-seed Baylor in the second round. It marked the eighth win by a double-digit seed in the 2022 women’s basketball tournament, tying a tournament record set in 2018. One more win by either the Creighton or South Dakota will mark just the fourth time in tournament history that a double-digit seed advances to the elite eight.

However, Sweet 16 success would put Creighton on a collision course with No. 1 overall seed and title favorite South Carolina. Tournament simulations by the Washington Post project Creighton has a 34-percent chance to make the Elite Eight, up from the 16-percent chance it was given on Selection Sunday. And while no team seeded worse than No. 3 has won the women’s tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1994 (the tournament expanded to include 68 teams for 2022), the Bluejays already see their tournament experience as a win.

“(Coach Flanery) told us before the game that it’s unconditional love no matter what happens, so I think that can be a statement for the whole season,” said Brotzki. “This team truly loves each other unconditionally, and it has been the most fun and also the most successful year that I’ve ever played in basketball. I just think that’s a testament to how we have each other’s backs, how close we are as teammates, and it just translates to the court.”

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