PHILADELPHIA — Creighton, energized and purposeful, opened its biggest test of the year with a well-designed, crisp-looking attack, burying a couple of jumpers and finishing two other times at the rim.
But Villanova answered with three 3s.
The Jays’ new piece — the energetic 6-foot-11 center Jacob Epperson — confidently galloped in off the bench, maneuvering out of a ball screen for a layup on one trip before finding a teammate for in-rhythm shot on the next. Tie game.
But another 3.
CU pressured the full length of the court and stayed active in a matchup zone, an alignment deployed specifically because the nation’s most efficient offense has been so lethal against man-to-man looks. There was even an instance, after two straight buckets, when the Jays could strut a bit, firing up their bench and quieting the crowd as they pulled within three points.
3. 3. 3. 3.
No matter the tactics Creighton tried, no matter how resilient its players attempted to be, the barrage from Villanova’s shooters simply did not stop Thursday night. The top-ranked Wildcats matched a school record with 19 3-pointers — no CU opponent has ever made more in a game. The result was a 98-78 blowout.
“We tried everything,” senior Marcus Foster said. “A team like that … it’s hard to guard, especially when they get going like that.”
The Jays (17-6, 7-4) hadn’t shown their matchup zone for any extensive stretch of play this season, but Thursday seemed to the CU staff like the best time to unveil it.
The thought was that Villanova (21-1, 8-1), which takes nearly half of its shots from behind the 3-point line, were going to create looks from long-range regardless — so maybe the Jays could eliminate the Wildcats’ inside game and foul-drawing ability while bothering their opponent just enough outside.
Villanova drained 15 of its first 25 shots. Nine of the makes were 3-pointers.
Then CU switched to man-to-man. The Wildcats banged in another 3 before halftime and then opened the second half 4 of 7 from deep.
Creighton briefly tried a 1-3-1 zone, a decision immediately thwarted by yet another 3-pointer.
“They hit a couple tough ones and they took a couple quick ones, which is what we wanted them to do,” McDermott said. “To their credit, they made them.”
“But it didn’t matter. We couldn’t guard them man-to-man, either. And we aren’t alone.”
Villanova’s top four scorers all shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. And that doesn’t include starting forward Eric Paschall, who entered Thursday ranked first in the league at 65.0 percent from long distance during Big East play. Freshman Collin Gillespie, just coming back from injury, had made 11 of his 29 3-pointers in 13 games off the bench.
All six made at least two triples Thursday. They pulled up off ball screens and splashed in jumpers. They buried shots after catching kick-out passes from teammates who had penetrated inside. They capitalized when they got extra chances after offensive rebounds.
They made them with a hand in their face. They made them when CU missed an assignment. They made some early in the possession and they made some right as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
It was a shooting display reminiscent of the last time Creighton played Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center, when the Jays hit 21 3-pointers in a 28-point win.
CU was on the wrong end of it this time. Which doesn’t happen very often. Not like this, anyway.
The Jays entered Thursday’s game ranked first in the Big East in 3-point defense. Opponents had made just 31.0 percent of their long-range shots. Just four teams recorded 10 or more 3-pointers in a game against CU this year.
And in McDermott’s eight years as Creighton’s coach – over a span of 271 games — only twice has a CU foe finished a game with 15 or more 3-pointers. Villanova got 16 two years ago.
On Thursday, the Wildcats were at 15 3s before the nine-minute mark of the second half.
The Jays’ eighth straight loss to Villanova was probably sealed even before that, though. They have dropped seven of those games by double digits. The Wildcats have been top 5 in offensive efficiency for each of those meetings.
They emphatically proved Thursday that they’re potent yet again.
“They’re really hard to stop,” McDermott said. “It’s hard to imagine that they could be a more efficient offensive team than they were a year ago, but they are. It’s like a video game, their offense. It’s fun to watch. It’s hard to prepare for. Very hard to come up with a scheme to try to stop them.”