LAHAINA, Hawaii – When Arizona center Oumar Ballo entered the Lahaina Civic Center pressroom to receive a lei and an MVP trophy Wednesday afternoon, his teammates filed in right behind him.

Then they stood in a row along the side of the room to watch every word he said.

Of course they did.

The Wildcats won their third Maui Invitational title Wednesday with an 81-79 win over Creighton that was powered not only by 30 points and 13 rebounds from Ballo, but also from key contributions all over the floor that helped them lead the Bluejays for 37 minutes and hold off a final surge over the last two minutes.

Kerr Kriisa had 13 points and nine assists, while Azuolas Tubelis, who had 44 points over the Wildcats’ earlier Maui Invitational wins over Cincinnati and San Diego State, added another 12 points and seven rebounds.

While Ballo was named the Maui Invitational MVP, Tubelis was named to the all-tournament team along with former UA forward Daniel Batcho of Texas Tech, Anthony Black of Arkansas and Creighton's Ryan Nembhard.

In Wednesday's championship game, UA guard Courtney Ramey also dished five assists, including one he literally dropped in Ballo’s hands as he drove the baseline with six minutes left, resulting in a 72-62 lead that gave UA just enough cushion to hang on at the end.

“I’m gonna give a lot of credit to the guards because they really found me,” Ballo said. “This is a team that I love playing for because no one is selfish. We share the ball and we turn down a good shot to take a great shot. So I’m really proud of each of these guys in here.”

Together, those teammates also prompted Creighton coach Greg McDermott to single-cover Ballo, giving him more room to operate once he received their passes. Ballo wound up making 14 of 17 shots.

"Ballo was a load down there," McDermott said. "You have to make some decisions because of their ability to shoot, and we decided to play him one-on-one."

Ballo took full advantage. He raised a fist toward the UA fan section when he hit the 30-point mark on a dunk that gave Arizona an 81-72 lead with 2:23 left, then did the same as he walked off the court after the game.

“We got to give a lot of credit to those people because they have our back and no matter what the scoreboard is, those people would show up and cheer for us,” Ballo said. ”And for them to book a flight and hotel all the way to Hawaii to support us means a lot to me and my team. So the only thing we can do is play hard and do anything we can do for them.”

As it turned out, the Bluejays forced the Wildcats to play hard for all 40 minutes. Because after Ballo’s celebration, Creighton went on a 7-0 run to pull within a basket in the final seconds.

Creighton cut it to 81-77 with 1:45 left after a layup from Ryan Nembhard and a 3-pointer from Baylor Scheierman. Then, in between perimeter misses from Kriisa and Ramey, the Bluejays received the second of two free throws from Ryan Kalkbrenner to get within a basket at 81-78.

Creighton called timeout with seven seconds left, aiming to set up a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime, but the Wildcats kept the Bluejays from getting off a shot.

Ramey fouled Nembhard with two seconds left, forcing Nemhbard to throw the second one intentionally off the bottom of the rim after making the first.

But Tubelis picked it up and Arizona held on from there, with Kriisa giving hugs to Tubelis and Courtney Ramey even before the bench emptied to celebrate.

“I just kept looking at the score and our timeouts, and I thought we had enough separation to kind of ride it out,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “You’re just hoping for a miss. You hate to say that, but if one of those (Creighton) shots bounces off and we rebound it, the game could have been over a little bit earlier. But they went in and I think we had maybe one or two poor decisions.

“That’s a little bit frustrating but we’ll learn from that.”

Creighton Arizona Basketball

Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Creighton, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The Bluejays actually made things frustrating for Arizona throughout the game, going on runs that amped up near-deafening support from a fan base that was supporting their first-ever Maui Invitational appearance.

While Ballo scored on the first possession of the game, peeling off to receive a pass under the basket from Kriisa after winning the opening tipoff, most of the first half was played within a possession.

Arizona pulled away slightly toward the end of the first half, thanks in part to 3-pointers from Ramey and Cedric Henderson. Then they led 39-30 at halftime and went ahead by 13 early in the second half before Creighton went on a 9-0 run to pull within 47-43 with 15 minutes left.

Then the Bluejays did it again in the final minutes, forcing UA to sweat it out in what was their third victory over a high-major program in three days.

But in the end, Arizona wound up leading the 10th-ranked team in the country for 37 minutes and kept what was the ninth-most efficient offense in Division I to just 38.5% shooting.

They also did all that to Creighton after beating Cincinnati 101-93 on Monday and San Diego State 87-70 on Tuesday to reach the Maui finals.

“Super proud of these guys,” Lloyd said. “These tournaments are hard to play three games in three days. It’s three really good teams with very distinct styles and to come out on top the way we did says a lot about this group.”

Creighton Arizona Basketball

Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) kisses the MVP trophy after Arizona defeated Creighton 81-79 in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The Wildcats, who are scheduled to stay in Maui through Friday afternoon, won’t play again until opening Pac-12 play on Dec. 1 at Utah.

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at bpascoe@tucson.com. On Twitter: @brucepascoe

Originally published on tucson.com, part of the TownNews Content Exchange.

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