Half an hour after his fourth game as a college freshman, Creighton guard Mitch Ballock stood underneath the tunnel at the Sprint Center, a cell phone glued to his ear. For the previous two hours, he had tried to treat a homecoming like any other game.
But it was impossible now. As he scanned the crowd, using the cell phone conversation as an aid, he spotted a contingent of family and friends waving to gather his attention. “I see you,” he said, and finally, his return to Kansas City — 35 minutes from his hometown of Eudora — brought out a smile.
It brought out his best, too. Ballock scored 22 points Monday in Creighton’s 100-89 victory against UCLA in a Hall of Fame Classic semifinal.
“This,” he said, “was fun.”
His coach was a bit more elaborate.
“He broke out tonight,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It’s great he did it in Kansas City in front of a lot of his family and friends, but this is what we talked about when we recruited him — nights like tonight. We’re ecstatic that he believed in us and he’s at Creighton.”
The destination came as a surprise to some. After all, he played high school ball at Eudora, only 10 miles from the doors at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas offered him a scholarship. And when Kansas high school players receive KU offers, they don’t typically turn them down.
But McDermott spotted the talent early. He attended Ballock’s games when Ballock was an eighth-grader. Saw his left-handed jumper. Saw the athleticism to accompany it.
“He stuck with me the whole way,” Ballock said. “Coach believed in me. So I think that’s a big reason why I’m here.”
He told Ballock that outings like Monday would come and that they’d come early. Ballock wanted to play immediately in his college career. He wanted to play up-tempo. Creighton represented an opportunity for both. “A system fit,” McDermott called it.
In reality, there aren’t many systems that won’t fit Ballock, the top-ranked high school senior in Kansas last year and a top-50 recruit nationally. He’s made the transition from high school to college appear easy.
He was the first man off the Creighton bench Monday against No. 23 UCLA, and he didn’t leave the court for the ensuing 10 minutes. He played 30 minutes in all.
“Mitch is on the floor because good things happen when he’s out there,” McDermott said. “He makes good decisions with the ball. He’s improving defensively — he’s certainly not a finished product there, but he’s trying. So Mitch is one of those guys that can impact the game without scoring. He’ll turn down a good shot to get one of these guys a great shot.”
In one sequence Monday, Ballock exhibited all of it. The time elapsed only one minute on the Sprint Center video board, but Ballock squeezed in a run that altered the course of the game. After UCLA erased a double-digit deficit and took a lead late in the first half, Ballock responded with a three-pointer. Then a layup. And after missing another three, he stole a pass in the backcourt and inserted another layup.
Sixty seconds. Ballock 7, UCLA 0.
“Mitch, he did big for us,” said Creighton senior Marcus Foster, a former K-State player. “I think (we had) that momentum going into halftime because Mitch got out, hit a three, got some steals. That’s just what he does.”
He replicated it — to a certain degree — in the second half. Creighton stretched a six-point advantage to 12 with a 10-4 run. Ballock accounted for all 10 points.
It was the most comfortable he’s appeared in a college game this season, but it’s not as if he was out of place before. Ballock is averaging 12 points and 3.3 rebounds per game on 54.5 percent shooting. He’s made 44 percent of his three-point attempts.
“When we came here in the summer, it was obviously a lot faster for me because I came out of high school right into playing against bigger kids, faster kids, more physical kids,” Ballock said. “Getting that out of the way in the summer, I think that helped a lot. Just try to shake the rust off and get acclimated for it.”