KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Syracuse's search for its first NCAA tournament victory ever will carry on for at least one more season.
Although the Orange erased most of a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes, they couldn't overcome poor shooting Saturday and fell 61-56 to Creighton in an NCAA tournament first-round game.
The loss dropped Syracuse to 0-5 all-time in NCAA tournament action. Syracuse, the No. 7 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, was making its first NCAA appearance since 2008.
"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."
After trailing 55-45 with 4:54 remaining, Syracuse (24-8) held Creighton (25-7) without a basket the remainder of the game. Syracuse's rally fell short when Elashier Hall's attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer went off the right side of the rim and the backboard with three seconds left. Creighton's Sarah Nelson added two free throws with three-tenths of a second remaining.
Perhaps it was fitting Syracuse's hopes ended on a missed shot. Syracuse was doomed by poor shooting all day. The Orange shot 31 percent (18 of 58) overall and 15.8 percent (3 of 19) from 3-point range.
"We don't shoot 15 percent behind the arc," Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. "That's not how we play. We don't shoot 31 percent from the field. We shoot 40 percent from the field (usually) and we shoot almost 30 percent from behind the arc."
Syracuse also couldn't slow down Creighton guard McKenzie Fujan, who scored a career-high 24 points while shooting 8 of 13 overall and 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
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 per game, 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 its first 12 shots overall.
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."
Sure enough, Nelson had 14 of her 17 points and Marissa Janning scored all 10 of her points after halftime as 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.
"Our goal was to keep them at their average, which was nine 3's made," Hillsman said. "If we keep them at nine, I think it's a different ballgame."
Syracuse cut the lead to 57-56 on Carmen Tyson-Thomas' layup with 19 seconds left. Fujan hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 59-56 with 16 seconds remaining, but the Orange still had a chance to tie the game until Hall's shot missed the mark.
"Never have I coached a tougher group of kids who omit to playing hard," Hillsman said. "I'm tough on them. I demand a lot, and they just (brought) it every single day."