No. 1 Villanova rallies, hands Creighton 1st loss

By Steve Beideck, The Sports Xchange

OMAHA, Neb. - No. 1 Villanova shook off a slow start Saturday and stormed back to overcome a 10-point first-half deficit to remain undefeated with an 80-70 Big East Conference victory over Creighton.

Led by a career-high 27 points from sophomore guard Jalen Brunson, the Wildcats improved to 14-0 while also handing No. 10 Creighton its first loss in 14 games.


Brunson was one of three Villanova players to score in double figures. Kris Jenkins finished with 21 points and national player of the year candidate Josh Hart had 18 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.

Junior Marcus Foster led Creighton (13-1, 0-1 Big East) with 22 points but was just 2 of 11 from 3-point range. Center Justin Patton, a 7-foot redshirt freshman, had 18 points and eight rebounds while Cole Huff added 11 points.


Wildcats coach Jay Wright said it wasn't surprising that Brunson stepped up and took command in a big game despite being surrounded by veteran players who led Villanova to the 2016 NCAA championship.

"Jalen we say is an old soul," Wright said. "Even though he's a sophomore, he (plays) like a senior. I think that experience and that intelligence really helps us down the stretch."

Both teams came out of halftime shooting at a better rate than they did in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova opened a four-point lead, its largest of the game to that point, before Creighton battled back to go up 50-49 with 15:50 left.

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The Wildcats then went on a 14-4 run to open a 63-54 advantage with 10:42 remaining that stilled the sellout crowd of 18,831 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. Four different players contributed to that run that was led by six points from Eric Paschall.

"There's a lot of guys out there who just won a national championship," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "They don't get shook, they don't get rattled."

Creighton regrouped and went on a 9-0 run of its own that started with a pair of alley-oop dunks by Patton. A 3-pointer from the left wing by Isaiah Zierden got the Jays within 63-61 before Maurice Watson sank two free throws after the media timeout to tie the game with 7:41 to go in regulation.


Another 3-pointer by Zierden knotted the game at 66-66. A layup off an offensive rebound by Hart and a jumper in the lane by Brunson put the Wildcats up 70-66 with 3:34 to play.

The next three Creighton possessions produced just one point before Hart hit another jumper in the lane with just under two minutes to go for a 72-67 lead. Brunson then moved his point total to 25 with a short jumper from the left side for a 74-67 lead.

"They're always efficient," McDermott said of the Wildcats. "What you saw out there wasn't anything new. They're very fundamental, they're very simple in what they do. We had to go with a few more double teams because of foul trouble. That puts your defense in a little bit more of a scramble and rotation mode."

Creighton led for just over 16 minutes of the first half before heading to the locker room down 42-41. The Jays got off to a fast start, racing to a 13-7 lead before the first media timeout by making six of their first nine shots.

That advantage reached 10 points twice -- at 21-11 and 24-14 -- before the Wildcats went on an 11-0 run to take their first lead of the game at 25-24. Brunson led that charge by scoring eight of his first half-leading 16 points.


"They were doing a very good job of taking Josh and Kris out," Wright said. "We have a lot of options on this team. (We) try to go to them but Jalen just started making plays. Not just scoring, but he's making plays for other people. We always know he's capable."

Villanova was able to slow Creighton's roll while Watson and Patton spent some unplanned time on the bench with two fouls apiece. When both got back on the floor, the Bluejays' offense found a groove that produced those 10-point leads in the first 10 minutes.

After Hart put Villanova back in front 31-29 with a layup, Patton and Watson combined to produce eight of Creighton's next 10 points for a 39-33 lead. Patton scored six of those points, with each basket courtesy of an assist from Watson, whoi finished with nine assists.

That duo returned to the bench together 2:10 before the intermission. The Wildcats took advantage of their absence to score nine of the final 11 points to take that slim lead into halftime.

NOTES: Villanova extended its school-record winning streak to 20 games dating back to last season. ... Villanova and Creighton opened and closed the 2016 calendar year with games in Omaha. On Jan. 2, the Wildcats began their remarkable year with an 85-74 win over the Bluejays at CenturyLink Center before wrapping up 2016 with Saturday's victory that made the Wildcats 38-3 in 2016. ... Creighton point guard Maurice Watson is a Philadelphia native who was a Parade Magazine All-American following a standout career at Boys' Latin High School. Watson, who is the nation's active leader in career assists, scored 2,356 points at Latin, the second most in the history of the Philadelphia Public League.


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