CINCINNATI — Creighton picked the wrong time to have its worst offensive performance of the year.
On the road against a talented and motivated Xavier team. In one of the marquee college hoops games on Saturday’s national schedule. With first place in the Big East on the line.
And the Jays completely flopped.
They were appropriately obliterated as a result.
CU committed five turnovers in the first five minutes, fell behind 36-22 after a 12-2 Xavier spurt midway through the first half and trailed by as many as 27 points. The 92-70 beatdown served as a 40-minute exposé on the consequences for insufficient focus and energy, what had been staples of Creighton’s identity to this point.
“Xavier was really good. And we weren’t,” coach Greg McDermott said, opening his postgame press conference with that assessment. “When that happens in this league — I don’t really care who you’re playing, but especially when you’re playing somebody as good as Xavier — you’re going to get your tail kicked.”
It was indeed a one-sided affair, mostly because the Jays (14-4, 4-2) couldn’t keep up.
No. 25 Creighton is a balanced squad that’s built to space the floor, move without the ball and create for others, often pressuring defenses to choose between guarding the 3-point line or the rim. But the prolific offensive attack — only four teams went into Saturday averaging more points — muddled its way into a funk, which essentially lasted all afternoon long.
CU had a season-low in assists (12) and points in the paint (26). Its field goal percentage (40.7) was the second-lowest single-game mark of the year.
But perhaps most damaging — and most uncharacteristic — were the 20 turnovers, a season high, that came in all varieties.
There was the unforced over-and-back. A 5-second violation on an in-bounds pass. A perimeter pass to no one that skipped out of bounds. A botched lob hit the rim. The Jays committed offensive fouls. They traveled. They got stripped on drives.
Freshman Mitch Ballock thought maybe he and his teammates underestimated the length of No. 10 Xavier. Musketeers coach Chris Mack said his own players brought the kind of effort defensively that he’d been looking for — back-to-back defeats to Providence and No. 1 Villanova helped the team play “with a little incentive” in Saturday’s matchup.
Junior Khyri Thomas said the Jays simply did not have the right mentality early, and they certainly didn’t respond the way they should have.
“You saw the way we came out,” he said. “They kind of sped us up, and did their thing.”
Three straight layups, a 3-pointer from Kaiser Gates and a three-point play from the Xavier junior forward forced a Creighton timeout with 5:41 left in the first half. The Musketeers (16-3, 4-2) made their next four field-goal attempts to keep the Jays from picking up any momentum before the break, too.
CU did pull within 56-43 on junior Ronnie Harrell’s floater with 15 minutes remaining in the second half. But that was as close as Creighton would get.
Its next six possessions following that Harrell bucket: two missed layups and four turnovers. Xavier sealed it with a 12-0 run during that span.
“No matter who it is, nobody’s going to come here and have an easy game,” Musketeers senior Kerem Kanter said. “We play tough, especially coming off games like we had at Providence and at Villanova. We just wanted to play as hard as we could.”
Creighton was aware of that. And it has typically matched or exceeded its opponent’s urgency level this season, particularly early in games. The Jays had only trailed twice at halftime before Saturday. They had double-digit leads at Gonzaga and Seton Hall.
But they weren’t ready to begin this one.
McDermott said he noted a couple of times during first-half timeouts that the Jays were moving as if they were stuck in “quicksand.” Xavier jumped passing lanes. It took away Creighton’s alley-oops off ball screens. The Musketeers’ game plan to switch every screen ensured that CU’s dribblers wouldn’t have an open space to operate.
The Jays never seemed to find a comfort zone.
“A lot of credit to them,” Harrell said. “They did a great job of switching everything and taking us out of our rhythm. But we know there are some things we need to work on — just getting our offense flowing.”