With Villanova teetering and the momentum shifting in Sunday’s first half, Creighton could not find the extra gear to surge ahead decisively and seize complete control.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, were much more opportunistic.
The Jays stumbled through two separate four-minute scoring droughts after halftime, and the reigning national champions blitzed them with two different 13-0 runs. The emphatic barrages proved to be enough for Villanova (13-4, 4-0) to build a double-digit lead and hold on for a 90-78 victory before a soldout crowd at the CHI Health Center.
“I think it’s the team we have, how resilient we are, and mentally tough,” senior Villanova guard Phil Booth said. “Just being down a lot during the season and learning how to keep doing what we do, fight back and stay aggressive no matter what.”
It’s a mentality Creighton’s still trying to find.
The Jays (10-7, 1-3) lost their third straight game Sunday – the first three-game regular-season losing streak in three seasons. They hadn’t dropped back-to-back home games in four years. The 1-3 league start is the worst for CU since that dismal 2014-15 campaign when the Jays finished last at 4-14.
But the Jays never lost their will to compete as Villanova’s veterans put the game away, and they don’t intend to relent as they prepare for two road games at St. John’s and Georgetown.
“This is the Big East. This is how it rolls,” sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander said. “We’ve got one of the toughest conferences in the nation. We’re just going to fight back.”
But there’s plenty to fix. Sunday’s game revealed that, perhaps more than defeats to Butler and Marquette.
The costly mistakes Creighton avoided early against Villanova started to pile up after the break. The Wildcats pounced right away.
The Jays’ two scoring droughts came in the first 11 minutes of the second half. CU missed two of its first nine 3-pointers and turned the ball over six times.
The long rebounds and giveaways helped jump start a Villanova offense that soon began exploiting the Jays in other ways, too. The Wildcats found a couple back-cutting teammates for layups. Booth, who scored a game-high 28, had too much room to maneuver around ball screens and rise up for jumpers.
Villanova turned a nine-point deficit into a 51-47 advantage about four minutes into the second half. After Creighton retook the lead at 53-51, the Wildcats delivered the knockout blow over the next few minutes. Booth hit two 3s to spark his team, and freshman Saddiq Bey’s run-out dunk capped the spurt to extend the lead to 64-53 with 9:35 left.
“I thought in the first half, we did a really good job of making it about us, playing fast and playing our pace,” freshman Marcus Zegarowski said. “The second half, I thought they controlled more of it.”
The thing is, though, Creighton’s halftime lead was just 42-38.
The Jays shot 50 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes. They assisted on 14 of their 16 makes. Sophomore Ty-Shon Alexander poured in 17 points. Martin Krampelj and Christian Bishop terrorized Villanova down low, pressuring the rim and keeping the Wildcat defense from hugging the 3-point line.
But Villanova remained within striking distance.
And soon, those passes to the interior got more difficult for CU. The 3-pointers stopped falling. The consequences of Creighton’s lack of depth — Damien Jefferson missed the game with an ankle injury — began revealing themselves.
The Wildcats repeatedly switched between man and zone looks to keep CU off balance and they relentlessly put pressure on the Jays to play without defensive lapses on the other end.
Ultimately, CU couldn’t keep up.
“We just got beat by a better team,” coach Greg McDermott said.