Creighton coach Greg McDermott relished the defensive effort Tuesday night that paved the way to a 70-56 victory over No. 5 Xavier.
Equally important, he said, was the Bluejays’ ability to get something established offensively at the start of each half.
Creighton went on a 16-0 run over a 4½-minute span early in the game to turn a 5-4 lead into a 21-4 bulge. James Milliken and Isaiah Zierden each made two 3-point baskets, while Zach Hanson had four of his six points during the spurt.
“We were thrilled to death because you know what they’re capable of,” McDermott said. “The start of the game was huge because it got the crowd into the game.”
The Bluejays led by 10 points at halftime, then scored eight points on their first four possessions of the second half to stretch their advantage to 45-27 with 17:11 to play.
“We were able to take a 10-point lead and make it an 18-point lead,” McDermott said. “If that’s flipped, and it goes from 10 to two, it’s a whole different game.”
Creighton’s overall offensive performance didn’t measure up to some its had this season. The Bluejays shot 40.7 percent from the field and 23.3 percent from 3-point range.
“But I thought our five starters really had us ready to go at the start of each half,” McDermott said.
That group included Milliken, the senior guard making his first start of the season in place of Khyri Thomas, who was ill Tuesday and did not play. Milliken scored nine points and had three rebounds.
“I thought James stepped in a did an admirable job,” McDermott said, “when he found out he was starting about 15 minutes before the game.”
Musketeers ‘couldn’t make shots’
Xavier entered Tuesday third in the league in scoring at 80.8 points per game.
The Musketeers were also second in 3-point field-goal percentage (.368) and fifth in field-goal percentage (.454). Against Creighton, Xavier made just 30 percent of its shots from the field and finished 1 of 21 from 3-point range.
“They did a good job on defense contesting shots,” Xavier forward James Farr said. “We’re a good 3-point shooting team, and tonight wasn’t our night.”
Said McDermott: “Let’s be honest, they missed some 3s they normally make.”
Still, the subpar offensive performance stunned the Musketeers.
“We’re one of the best offensive teams in the country, so this is unexpected,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “We couldn’t get out of our own way, we couldn’t make shots.”
Defensive switch takes Jays out of zone
Creighton had worked on attacking Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone defense, but the Bluejays looked lost when the Musketeers switched defenses early in the second half to try to get back into the game.
Creighton scored just 10 points on 18 possessions when Xavier played primarily from the zone. The Musketeers were able to take their 18-point deficit to five points on two occasions before point guard Maurice Watson was able to re-establish control of the game.
Part of the initial problem in attacking the 1-3-1 zone, the 5-foot-10 Watson said, was the Musketeers’ length. Asked what he saw when Xavier first switched to the zone, Watson said, “I couldn’t see much.”
Eventually, he started to find some holes.
“I was able to start swinging the ball when the guy was chasing, and I was able to get into the lane and force some of the guys to help,” Watson said. “Because my teammates are such good shooters, they really don’t want to help off of those guys.
“That allowed me to get into the lane, and then it’s up to what I do in the gym every day.”
Watson finished with a career-high 32 points and growing respect from opponents that are facing him for the first time this season.
“Their point guard is a flash in transition,” Farr said. “We had a tough time stopping him.”
Bits and pieces
» The victory was the Bluejays’ first win over a team ranked in the top five since Jan. 20, 2014, when Creighton beat No. 4 Villanova 96-68. Creighton also moved to 4-28 all-time against teams in the top five — three of those wins have come in Omaha.
» Creighton now has three wins over top-10 foes in the last three seasons after just five previous such wins in program history.
» The Bluejays improved to 23-131 all-time vs. top-25 teams, and is 2-5 this year vs. ranked foes.
» Zierden has now made at least one three-point basket in 13 straight games.
» Creighton has won 29 straight games in which a player has 31 points or more.
» Creighton has not trailed in either of its last two home wins, and eight of 15 home games this season.