The Creighton men’s basketball team used an early second-half run to erase a halftime deficit and made 10 of 12 free throws in the final minute to defeat nationally-ranked Butler.
The Bluejays defeated No. 18 Butler 72-64 in front of 17,677 at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Saturday night.
The Jays trailed 34-29 at the half, but went on an 11-0 run to start the second half and did not trail the final 18 minutes of the game.
“[The run] was a huge lift,” sophomore forward Toby Hegner said. “It wasn’t just our offense that was giving us a lift, it was our defense. It allowed us to get our transition game going, allowing us to push it and get the tempo where we needed it to be.
“It definitely gave us a lift we needed to come out with the game.”
Junior guard Maurice Watson Jr. scored 18 of his team-high 20 points in the second half and made five foul shots in the final minute to help Creighton defeat its first top-25 opponent since Nov. 19, 2014 when the Jays defeated Oklahoma.
The Bluejays’ leading scorer also finished with six assists.
“He got into the lane on us and was able to make some finish over some bigger guys -- he’s really good at doing that,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s certainly the head of the snake for their group [and] leads them in a lot of different ways.”
The Bulldogs pulled within four with less than 20 seconds to play, but the Jays went 4-of-4 from the free-throw line to close out the game.
“We haven’t been in many close games; when we were we lost,” coach Greg McDermott said. “This was one where it was close enough there at the end that we had to grind it out at the end and make some plays on both ends of the floor. The confidence you get from that is huge.”
Junior guard Isaiah Zierden’s 3-pointer from the left wing with 18:08 remaining to give Creighton the lead was the only lead change of the second half and the score was never tied during the final 20 minutes.
The first half featured five lead changes and three ties.
The Bluejays led by as many as seven over the first 15 minutes of the game, but Butler controlled the offensive rebounding to stay in the game and eventually led by five at the break.
“It’s one thing to give up the rebound, it’s another thing not to dig your heels in and make sure you don’t let one mistake be that costly,” McDermott said, “and I don’t know I’ve ever seen six offensive rebounds at halftime and 16 points – that’s incredible.”
The Bulldogs outscored the Bluejays 16-2 in second-chance points before the break. Kelan Martin scored 17 points of his game-high 22 in the first half.
McDermott challenged his team to be tougher in the second half.
“We were getting out toughed and they had 16 second-chance points,” Zierden said. “[In] the first half that’s really what got them that lead. He just told us we can’t give up offensive rebounds and if we were tougher in the second half we’d win.”
Creighton (14-6, 5-2 Big East) buckled down on the defensive side of the ball and gave up only four second-chance points in the second half and held the Bulldogs to 10 field goals and only one 3-pointer over the final 20 minutes.
Butler (13-6, 2-5) finished the game shooting 33 percent.
“They’re just a good defensive team,” Holtmann said. “They have great size; they have guys that move their feet really well; they make you play over the top of them.”
The Bluejays also limited No. 12 Providence to 30 percent from the field in their last game at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Jan. 12.
“It’s very satisfying,” Hegner said. “We’ve been working really hard defensively. In practice we’ve been doing defensive drills for about 20, 30 minutes every day and we really wanted to accomplish something defensively these last couple of games, and I think we’ve done it.”
Butler’s leading scorer Kellen Dunham finished with 20 points while playing the entire game.
Zierden also played all 40 minutes and matched up against the Bulldogs’ main scoring threat.
“[Zierden is] our heart and soul,” Hegner said. “He’s a defensive machine. If you watch the tape Kellen Dunham didn’t hit an easy shot all night. Isaiah was there every shot, every possession.”
McDermott gave Zierden similar praise.
“I thought he was outstanding,” McDermott said. “The number that sticks out is the three 3-point attempts. All the things they do for [Dunham] to try to get him 3-point shots and for him to only get three [is a] heck of an effort by Isaiah.”
Similar to the opening stages of the second half, the Bluejays also jumped out a 5-0 start before Martin hit a 3-pointer from the left corner five minutes into the game.
“They did not score in their first seven possessions both halves,” coach Greg McDermott said, “so our attention to detail and what we were supposed to do defensively to start the game and start the half – which obviously are very important parts of the game – was outstanding.”
Saturday’s win marked Creighton’s fifth win in conference play and 14th overall. Last season the Jays finished with only four wins in conference and ended their season at 14-19 with a loss in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
The Bluejays are tied for second place in the conference standings after being picked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Creighton hits the road to face Georgetown on Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m.
“We need to make sure we’re happy tonight, that we’re proving people wrong -- we’re not ninth -- but on Tuesday we need to make sure that we go out there and let people know again that we’re not ninth,” Zierden said. “It’s just a game-by-game thing.”