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No. 13 Creighton holds on for victory against No. 22 Xavier
BASKETBALL

No. 13 Creighton holds on for victory against No. 22 Xavier

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Shereef Mitchell

Creighton's Shereef Mitchell floats around a Xavier defender to go for a layup.

Creighton may soon need to address the vulnerabilities that led to two clunkers on offense this week, but at least the Jays know they can rely on tenacious defending to carry them as they work to regain their prolific scoring form.

CU won ugly, again -- this time surviving with a 66-61 victory over No. 22 Xavier Wednesday at the CHI Health Center.

It wasn’t the shootout that seemed probable with two of the Big East’s top offenses facing off in a top 25 showdown. Instead, neither team could find a rhythm. Silly turnovers stalled the action on both ends. Open jumpers clanged off the rim. Even the layups proved to be adventurous.

Creighton shot 35.5%. Xavier finished at 35.3%. Gross.

But the Jays were the ones who successfully closed out the grinder, similar to how they prevailed in a 76-74 overtime win at UConn Sunday.

“Things might not go our way but we still have to find a way at the end of the day to do the little things to get the win,” CU senior Denzel Mahoney said. “I think we did that very well (Wednesday).”

The victory didn’t come without some last-second drama, though.

No. 13 Creighton had a six-point lead when Xavier senior Paul Scruggs nailed a 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining.

On the ensuing in-bounds play, CU got the ball to Antwann Jones, who tossed a pass toward midcourt after losing his balance. It resulted in a turnover.

The loose ball ended up in the hands of Xavier’s Adam Kunkel, who just three days prior had defeated Marquette with a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer. Kunkel got a great look from long range to potentially tie the game with one second left. But he missed it.

“I was surprised it didn’t go in,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, who recruited Kunkel as a transfer this past offseason.

Then again, McDermott could have said that quite often Wednesday, referencing either squad's countless bricks.

CU led the league in scoring offense coming in (85.0 points per game). Xavier was second (84.1). The Musketeers were making 41.5% of their 3-pointers -- the Jays were at 38.1%.

But they each experienced stretches of disjointed play Wednesday.

There was a six-possession span midway through the second half where CU turned the ball over four times. It made just two field goals in the final eight minutes.

Xavier was just as inept, even though it did race out to a 22-9 lead after making nine of its first 13 shots.

“We wasted probably about six to seven possessions,” Musketeers coach Travis Steele said. “And that’s the difference between winning and losing a close game against a really good team. You can’t do that.”

The outcome may have indeed been decided by the first three trips down the floor to begin the second half.

Xavier missed three shots. And Creighton stretched its lead to 44-34 -- junior guard Marcus Zegarowski maneuvered in for a layup and buried a 3-pointer before senior Mitch Ballock hit one from deep.

The Jays never trailed from there, although they may have revealed some long-term question marks offensively as their lead began to dwindle.

Zegarowski’s had an up-and-down start to the year. Ballock, too. CU's now gone two straight games where it's recorded more turnovers than assists. The Jays are still well under 70% shooting at the free-throw line as a team. And they’re missing a lot in close -- they were 6 of 15 on layup tries Wednesday (10 of 19 at UConn).

But it’s a long season. For now, Creighton’s guys are just glad they’ve proven that trying to out-score teams isn’t the only winning blueprint with this group.

The Jays have won the rebounding battle in three straight games, which hasn't happened in Big East play in six years. They're racing to 50/50 balls. Their toughness and effort defensively is keeping teams off balance.

“Those are things that have to happen if you’re going to win a close game when it’s an atypical style type game for you,” McDermott said. “This is two in a row that were more of a rock fight, and we found a way to win it.”

POSTGAME NOTES

Creighton wore uniforms with “EQUALITY” etched into the back of the jerseys Wednesday, which is part of an ongoing push from the CU basketball program to raise awareness on social justice issues.

McDermott addressed the crowd in a pre-taped video message before the playing of the National Anthem.

“Together we can eradicate the social injustices that exist in our world,” he said during the short clip.

McDermott then, following Creighton's 66-61 win over Xavier, addressed the topic for 2 ½ minutes in his post-game press conference.

He said the team spent considerable time this summer, while protests were erupting across the country, talking as a group about ways that it could help spark change this season.

The Jays and the rest of the Big East basketball teams are wearing a Black Lives Matter patch on the front of their jerseys. CU went with the additional equality message on the uniform Wednesday.

And for the rest of the year, before every game, McDermott said one member of the team will address fans with a pre-recorded video message to share his thoughts on the social justice movement.

“Our guys were like, we just want to have our voices heard,” McDermott said. “Just listen to these guys and understand that their stories are much different than mine, and much different than many of our fans’. Some of the experiences that they’ve had are very, very difficult. And hard for me to actually imagine.”

Senior Denzel Mahoney said wearing the special jerseys Wednesday meant a lot to him.

“It’s hard to put into words but I do appreciate Mac and everybody that had a hand in making this happen,” he said. “Just another step forward.”

***

Wednesday marked the first Creighton home game with fans in attendance since the start of the pandemic.

It was a limited crowd -- announced at 1,673 -- spaced out inside the CHI Health Center’s lower bowl. Masks were required.

But those supporters had an impact, according to Mahoney and McDermott.

Mahoney said the fans provided a “boost of energy” with their cheers and chants, especially late in the game.

McDermott said the Jays are worn down after six games against major-conference teams over a 16-day span. They needed all the help they could get at the end.

“For (the players) to have some people cheer for them (Wednesday), in terms of their mental well-being was really healthy,” McDermott said. “It was great to see some blue in the crowd. And have a little energy late in the game with some of those defensive possessions, they were really critical.”

***

Creighton distributed Big East championship rings inside the locker room after Wednesday’s win. The players opened up small boxes to find their rings inside. The program’s Twitter account shared a video of the reveal. CU earned a share of its first Big East regular season title last year.


Photos: Creighton vs. Xavier

Omaha World-Herald: Local Sports

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