The Creighton men’s basketball team never trailed and its junior point guard had a career-night against the No. 5 team in the country.
Maurice Watson Jr. scored 32 points and Creighton upset No. 5 Xavier 70-56 at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Tuesday night.
Of his career-high point total, Watson scored 22 in the second half while navigating his way around Xavier’s engulfing 1-3-1 zone defense.
“It’s not easy attacking that 1-3-1 with their length and size and he was able to get in some crevices,” coach Greg McDermott said.
The Musketeers switched to their zone early in the second half after finding themselves trailing by as many as 18 points.
Xavier’s new scheme helped cut the deficit to five points.
“I couldn’t see much – that was the problem,” Watson said. “Those guys have great length with [J.P.] Macura at the top and [Jalen] Reynolds in the middle and I was getting timid with my drive down the lane.
“But my teammates told me to stick with it and they told me to be aggressive.”
A pair of free throws from Reynolds cut the lead to five, 55-50, but Xavier never got any closer as Watson countered with a basket and junior forward Cole Huff hit a 3-pointer from the left-corner to extend the advantage back to 10.
“[Watson] finally broke the code and got inside of it and made some big plays,” McDermott said.
Watson also finished with five assists and seven rebounds.
“To be able to get it done and see the way he did it,” McDermott said. “It was a really special performance by a really special point guard.”
Watson opened the game with a layup to give Creighton an early lead and the Jays jumped out to a 21-4 advantage after a 16-0 run.
“When we jumped on them early we got two or three stops in a row to start the game and got the whole building going, which really got the energy going for the whole game,” senior center Geoffrey Groselle said. “Those first couple of possessions were key.”
Xavier (21-3, 9-3 Big East) cut the lead to seven with 3:23 to play in the first half, but Watson hit a pair of free throws with less than a second showing on the clock to put the halftime margin at 10.
Creighton (16-9, 7-5) held a 25-18 advantage in rebounds at the half. The Bluejays knew going into the game that they needed to control the rebounding game.
“They crash the boards hard and we did a great job of boxing them out in most points in the game and just going to get the ball,” Groselle said. “That was a huge point in our victory tonight.”
The Bluejays started the second half similar to the first, scoring 10 of the first 12 points to take an 18-point lead four minutes into the final 20.
The Musketeers fought back with an 11-1 run of their own to cut the margin back to 10 and eventually got within five, but Watson scored eight of Creighton’s next 11 points to extend the lead to 13 with two minutes to play.
Creighton made only seven of its 30 3-point field goal attempts, but the Bluejays also held Xavier to 1 of 21 from beyond the arc.
The Musketeers held a 38-24 advantage in points in the paint as Reynolds scored 17 points and fellow forward James Farr scored 14.
Tuesday’s triumph marked Creighton second win in a row. The Bluejays had lost three consecutive games prior to Saturday’s 88-66 victory over DePaul.
“Being able to lose three games in a row and turn it around -- win two big games – it speaks a lot of [Watson’s] leadership and the guys being able to fight and turn this thing around,” Groselle said.
The win also gives the Jays one more victory on their resume for a possible at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“This was a big win for us,” Groselle said. “At the end of the year if we’re sitting on the bubble this will be in the big wins for us and hopefully push us over the edge to get into the tournament.”
Creighton plays its next two games on the road before returning to CenturyLink Center Omaha for games against Marquette and St. John’s to close out the home schedule.
“We won a game that mattered and that makes the next few games matter so we just have to try to build on what was a great win tonight,” McDermott said.
Creighton travels to Marquette on Saturday. Tip-off between the Bluejays and Golden Eagles is scheduled for 7:01 p.m.