MILWAUKEE — The home crowd gasped as freshman Marcus Zegarowski slipped to the floor and the Big East’s leading scorer cut off his drive and darted back for his familiar step-back 3.
Markus Howard buried it — the same shot he tortured Creighton with over and over for 45 minutes in January, when he dropped 53 and the Golden Eagles gut-punched CU 106-104 in overtime.
He was at it again Sunday afternoon.
The 5-foot-11 junior sent his defender to the ground, guided that triple through the net, brought the fans to their feet and gave his team a 54-50 lead with five minutes left.
It could have been the dagger. A month ago with these Bluejays, it probably would have been.
But an improving Creighton squad didn’t fold in a game it needed to keep its at-large NCAA tournament hopes alive. And it was rewarded for its resilience.
CU forced six turnovers in the final five minutes, seized control with a 10-0 run and secured the 66-60 win by going 6 of 8 from the foul line in the closing seconds. The upset of No. 10 Marquette (23-6, 12-4) also snapped Creighton’s six-game losing streak in this series.
“Those plays late, we just played with a lot of grit and got after them on the defensive end,” sophomore Mitch Ballock said on the Jays’ postgame radio show. “I think that was huge.”
They worked on it all week.
Marquette doesn’t have many weaknesses on offense, but its most glaring vulnerability has been turnovers. The Golden Eagles had given the ball away on 19.4 percent of their possessions coming into Sunday — 229th nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data.
So Creighton defenders knew they needed to be alert, relentless and aggressive. For 40 minutes.
They were, even after Howard’s shot.
Junior Martin Krampelj ripped the ball away from Sam Hauser and soared to the rim for a runout dunk. Zegarowski intercepted a pass. Junior Davion Mintz, who had a career-best six steals, poked the ball away from a driving Howard then deflected a pass intended for Howard. Mintz thwarted a dribble handoff by knocking the ball into the backcourt for a steal. Ballock rotated down and slapped the ball out of Theo John’s hands before the big man could make a post move.
Creighton erased a four-point deficit and built a 60-54 lead, capping the surge when Zegarowski completed a transition layup with 2:18 remaining. It was all the result of defense, coach Greg McDermott said. Marquette ended up matching a season high with 22 turnovers.
“Our rotations and our activity with our hands — knocking those balls loose and forcing turnovers — was a big part in the game,” McDermott said during the postgame press conference.
That’s evidence of the Jays’ growth, McDermott said.
He’s not sure his team six weeks ago could have kept its energy up and stayed engaged defensively on a day when it struggled to score like it did Sunday.
Creighton made 39.6 percent of its field-goal attempts — third lowest this season. It managed seven points during the first half’s final six minutes. There was a seven- minute stretch after halftime when CU scored five points and went 2 of 11 from the field.
But the Bluejays (16-13, 7-9) kept battling.
They trailed 39-34 with 16 minutes left but put together a 6-0 surge to take the lead. After Howard’s 3-pointer made it 54-50 with 5:25 left, Creighton ended the game on a 16-6 run.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys performed,” McDermott said. “(Marquette) got some momentum in the second half and got the crowd into it. And our guys executed without me having to burn a couple timeouts.
“We just ran our stuff. We did what we’re supposed to do defensively.”
The performance keeps CU in the hunt for an at-large NCAA berth — at least for now. Creighton doesn’t have any bad losses and its strength of schedule is one of the nation’s best. Now the Jays have a marquee win.
They’ll finish the regular season this week with home games against Providence and DePaul.