After four consecutive home contests in which it never trailed, the Creighton men’s basketball team held the lead twice for less than a minute of game time during its first Big East contest at home.
No. 16 Villanova played dominantly on offense and defeated the Bluejays 85-71 Saturday night at CenturyLink Center Omaha.
“Villanova was great,” coach Greg McDermott said. “There was no question who the better team was.”
The Wildcats shot 68 percent from the field (34-of-50) and missed only four two-point field goal attempts.
Villanova’s shooting performance was the best by a Creighton opponent since Bradley shot 68.5 percent from the field on Jan. 22, 1987.
“We didn’t come out aggressive enough on defense and we didn’t have that same practice intensity,” senior guard Maurice Watson Jr. said. “When you allow a team who is a top-20 team in the country to shoot 70 percent total you’re not going to win no matter how many shots you make.”
Villanova guard Josh Hart led all scorers with 25 points while senior forward Daniel Ochefu had 19.
The pair finished the game 19-of-24 from the field.
Ochefu opened the game perfect on seven shot attempts during the first half.
“We know he’s a great player – very talented – so whenever we’re able to get him started early it always helps us get going inside, outside,” Hart said.
The senior forward’s efficient start helped the Wildcats take control and silence the sell-out crowd.
“We know what this place can be,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “If you don’t come in and you’re not on top of your game this place gets going and [when] they get going it’s as tough as anywhere in the country. In the old Big East days the [Carrier] Dome was like that up at Syracuse. If they got out on the break and were throwing alley-oops and dunking it that place gets crazy, and here if you’re inefficient offensively, you’re turning it over and they’re out running you and hitting 3s, this place gets crazy.”
The announced crowd of 17,375 never had a chance erupt as the Bluejays missed their first 11 3-point field goals and scored zero fast-break points in the first half.
The Jays held leads of 3-2 and 11-10 but the Wildcats responded within a minute each time to regain the lead.
Creighton had a small spark in the closing moments of the opening 20 minutes.
With the Jays trailing 38-28 senior guard James Milliken scored the next seven Creighton points to bring the halftime deficit to five, 40-35.
Villanova seized control of any Bluejays hope of a comeback as it gained a 48-38 lead three and a half minutes into the second half.
Following a 13-point performance in the first half, Hart scored the first eight Villanova points after halftime and helped the Wildcats build their third double-digit lead of the game.
Creighton (10-5, 1-1 Big East) used a 6-0 run to pull within seven, 61-54, but Wright called a timeout to limit the damage. Villanova (12-2, 2-0) followed the break in the action with an 11-4 spurt to build a 72-58 lead heading into the under-eight media timeout.
The Bluejays cut the lead to 12 three different times during the final eight minutes but never got closer.
As good as the Wildcats were offensively, they also played well defensively.
Creighton entered its Big East home opener as one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Through the first 14 games of the season the Bluejays averaged 86.9 points per game, good enough for seventh nationally while averaging 9.1 made 3-point field goals.
On Saturday the Jays made only five 3-pointers and scored less than less than 75 points for only the fourth time this season.
”Villanova is a very discipline team,” Watson said. “They stick to what they do, but total we shot almost 50 percent for the game and we missed a lot of open looks from ‘3.’”
Watson led Creighton with 15 points while junior guard Isaiah Zierden pitched in with 14 and junior forward Cole Huff had 13.
The Bluejays shot 45.5 percent from the field (25-of-55) but only 21.7 percent from beyond the 3-point line (5-of-23).
Despite its ability to score the basketball, the Jays have consistently struggled on the defensive side of the court and Saturday’s performance mirrored their play on defense from the early portion of the season.
“All of my fears and really everything that I’ve talked to our team about as we’ve moved along here through the nonconference portion of our schedule came to fruition tonight,” coach Greg McDermott said. “I was worried this could happen to us. We’ve tried to address it; as the players have eluded to we spend a tremendous amount of time on it on the practice floor, but when the lights go on you have to do it, and we didn’t do it, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that they do, do it.
“Either we have to tweak what we do or we have to tweak who’s doing it and maybe it’s a combination of the two.”
Zierden believes that each player has the responsibility to figure out what he needs to improve on.
“We drill it every day for a good amount of practice and we can do it in drills it just has to find a way to carry over to the games,” Zierden said, “and I think that’s just a mentality of breaking it down individually.”
“The frustrating part is I think there are some individuals that just refuse to take ownership in what they need to do on that end of the floor and how that would impact our team if their approach was slightly different,” McDermott said.
The Jays rank last in the Big East in field-goal percentage defense as opponents have shot 45.1 percent through 15 games.
The Bluejays have a pair of days to prepare for their next challenge.
Creighton returns to action Tuesday night as it hosts Georgetown at 8:15 p.m.
“The reality of it is [when] you start with a game on the road then you have Georgetown and Villanova at home, if you can figure out a way to come out of that 2-1 you’d probably be pretty happy without playing any of the games,” McDermott said, “so we still have an opportunity to do that, we just have to make sure we prepare for it well the next two days.”