PITTSBURGH (AP) — Creighton leaned on experience from past trips through March to make sure this one didn't start with a stumble.

Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 23 points and Trey Alexander had 19 as the Bluejays, who came within seconds of making the Final Four a year ago, opened the NCAA Tournament with a 77-60 win over Akron in the Midwest Region on Thursday.

No. 3 seeded Creighton (24-9) got all it could handle in the first half from No. 14 seed Akron (24-11), the Mid-American Conference tourney champion which came in as a 10 1/2-point underdog, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

However, the Bluejays flexed their Big East muscles after halftime and pulled away to advance to the second round and a matchup with No. 11 seed Oregon on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena. The Ducks advanced with an 87-73 victory over South Carolina.

This was the start Creighton was hoping for. A year ago, the Bluejays’ season ended with a heartbreaking 57-56 loss to San Diego State — Creighton committed a foul in the closing seconds — in the South Region final. Much of that squad came back for coach Greg McDermott to try and make another deep run, and the Bluejays have taken the first step.

“Teams that are here the first time are taking pictures and doing all that when they go on the court,” McDermott said. “Our guys today were like, all right, this is where we expected to be. What are we going to do, and let’s do it and get out of here.”

The Bluejays took care of business.

Baylor Scheierman added 15 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton, which made 10 of 17 3-pointers. The Bluejays, who were reminded of the fragility of this month when they got bounced in the first round of the Big East tourney last week, only led by five at halftime as Akron matched them shot for shot. But a 20-8 run to open the second half ensured Creighton's tournament will continue.

“The game is 40 minutes long and there’s a lot of ups and downs,” Scheierman said. “Obviously in the first half there was some things that didn’t go right for us and they were kind of hanging with us and whatnot. But then we were able to get stops and get a game of runs and we were able to go on ours. The experience of knowing that the game is 40 minutes and anything can happen, that helps us out.”

Akron's Enrique Freeman, the MAC Player of the Year and nation's leading rebounder, finished with 21 points and 14 boards. It was Freeman's 31st double-double, tying him with Navy great David Robinson (1986) for the single-season NCAA record.

“Obviously the accolades feel nice,” said Freeman, his eyes reddened from tears. “We worked very hard. We did something very special in Akron, and I’m glad we were able to put on for the city.”

The Zips fell to 0-6 in NCAA Tournament play.

Akron coach John Groce, who guided Ohio to a Sweet 16 berth in 2010, had his team ready to play and the Zips were still within 49-42 early in the second half.

But that's when the Bluejays went on a 10-2 run capped by Mason Miller hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing. After catching the ball, Miller used a fake to buckle the knees of Akron's Mikal Dawson, who moaned as he fell helplessly backward to the floor.

The Zips were still within 12 before Creighton slowed things down, forced Akron to foul and made its free throws.

With 1:23 left, Groce decided it was time and subbed for Freeman, who made the Zips' roster as a walk-on five years ago and departs as one of the top players in the program's history. It was an emotional moment for Groce, who hugged Freeman tightly while knowing he would never coach him again.

“Tough,” Groce said, pausing for several seconds to gain his composure while talking about Freeman. "It’s not just because as good of player as he is, that's part of it. But it’s the person he is. The leader. The teammate. How coachable he is. His work ethic. How much he cares about other people.

“I’ve nicknamed him the unicorn for a reason.”

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