Seven of the nine Bluejays that played in Sunday afternoon's 95-89 victory over visiting Xavier recorded an assist, but the 17,589 people in attendance could have also been credited with a helper.
The Creighton faithful was ready to go before the ball was even tipped. As the Bluejays starters were introduced, first-time starter Avery Dingman was received with an ovation that exceeded the norm.
"It felt good," said the junior who started in Grant Gibbs's absence. "Like I said earlier, some nerves were natural. I mean, a little butterflies, but that really felt good. (They) welcomed me and once we got going, I felt pretty comfortable."
The Musketeers came out and did well to hush the sold out crowd behind a Creighton-esque shooting performance. Individually, Creighton's starting big men, Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge, stood little chance one-on-one against Xavier's 6-foot-10, 263-pound man in the middle, Matt Stainbrook, so they opted to bring a double team as soon as the big man touched the ball.
Stainbrook handled the pressure well and distributed the ball to teammates on the perimeter. With Bluejay defenders caught late rotating, the Musketeers hit five of their first seven attempts from three and opened up a 15-3 lead in the first four minutes. Dee Davis and Justin Martin both entered the game having made 14-of-41 (.341) from deep on the season, but combined for all 15 of the visitors' early points on 5-of-6 from behind the arc.
"We're a team that has to come up with a plan because we're not going to change many shots at the rim; we're not going to force many turnovers," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. "So, we have to pick our poisons so to speak, as simple as that sounds. To Xavier's credit, you know, they haven't played a road game in conference play yet, so I thought ‘Alright, let's try to make somebody else knock down some shots.' And to their credit, they did that."
While Xavier coach Chris Mack's team came out hot, Coach Mac's Jays did not. The Bluejays missed their first four looks, and didn't score until Doug McDermott's triple three minutes in. Once the conference's Preseason Player of the Year got going, he didn't slow down. McDermott scored Creighton's first eight points, cutting the lead to seven. Xavier responded to the one-man surge with buckets on three consecutive possessions and expanded the lead to 13, the largest deficit CU would face, after a bucket by Semaj Christon.
Badly needing a spark, Creighton turned to its own electrifying point guard, Devin Brooks. Christon's layup made the score 21-8, but Brooks got to the cup and finished on CU's ensuing possession before finding Jahenns Manigat for one of his two first-half threes on the next trip down. A couple of defensive stops and makes from McDermott and Brooks got the Jays within four, and CenturyLink Center crowd made its presence known.
"They tried to help us early when we got off to that rough start," said McDermott. "As we started to come back, you could just feel it building in the building. The momentum and the enthusiasm and that crowd, it makes a huge difference."
Manigat and Ethan Wragge gave the packed house something to cheer about, hitting from deep on back-to-back possessions and giving the hosts a 23-22 lead. The two first-year BIG EAST institutions seesawed for a few minutes before McDermott rattled off five points in a minute and gave CU a five-point lead with 5:42 left in the half. Creighton would not trail the rest of the way.
McDermott scored 15 of his 35 points in the first half, and Creighton entered intermission up four. McDermott added seven boards, three assists and a steal to his stat line in his first full game since spraining his left shoulder at DePaul. Hurt or not, the two-time All-American was too much for Xavier to handle on Sunday.
"I'm not going to necessarily get technical and tell you what our plan was," said Xavier's fifth-year head coach. "It obviously wasn't very effective. There's a reason he's going to score 3,000 points in his career."
Early second-half scores from Martin and Christon kept the Musketeers within striking range until Wragge grabbed the attention of the fans and many NBA scouts and general managers on hand. The senior sharpshooter hit a trio of triples in 62 seconds, ballooning the Jays lead from four to 11 almost instantly. Coach Mack labeled the display, which consisted of makes from somewhere between the 3-point line and mid-court, a "circus show."
When Wragge was asked after the game about his long-range display that sent witnesses into a frenzy, he laughed and lamented over the fact that he missed his easier attempts before explaining his mindset after a make.
"Austin (Chatman) and Doug and actually J (Manigat) did a really good job of finding me in stride, and that really just makes it a lot easier," said Wragge. "Once I hit one, I like to try to get two to follow up behind it, and we'll see what goes."
Wragge showed once again why he is regarded as one of the country's finest shooters, making half of his attempts from three and finishing with 15 points. His final triple gave CU its first double-digit lead. The Jays' advantage fluctuated around 10 points for most of the second half, but the Musketeers hung tough. Made layups from Stainbrook and Martin on consecutive trips narrowed the gap to eight before the media timeout with under 12 minutes left.
Dingman subbed in at the break and finished the Jays first possession with a baseline drive finished off by a two-hand slam over two defenders. McDermott stole the ball on Xavier's next trip and finished the break with an offensive rebound and score, concluding a quick 4-0 run that expanded the lead to 12 and kept the crowd's energy at a high level.
Xavier, as it did for much of the final 30 minutes, continually responded to CU surges. Their resiliency was rewarded late in the game when they capitalized on CU turnovers and missed free throws. With just over 30 seconds to play and the home team seemingly nursing a nine-point lead, Martin and Myles Davis nailed a pair of threes in a span of four seconds that cut the difference to three.
Chatman, who was whistled for an offensive foul between the big threes, and Manigat calmly put the game out of reach from the free throw line, as Creighton moved to 4-0 in the conference and dropped Xavier to 3-1. Brooks, Manigat and Chatman rounded out the Bluejays in double figures, scoring 14, 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Christon, who is expected to be a lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, finished with 27 points. Described by Bluejays as nearly impossible to stop in transition, the sophomore hit 10-17 field goals, including 2-3 from deep, and added five assists and four rebounds. Martin finished with 21 points, while Stainbrook pitched in 15 points and 11 rebounds, and Dee Davis added 14 points and eight assists. As good as his guys were, and as loud as the CU fans were, the Xavier coach thought that only one thing truly decided Sunday's contest.
"I thought the difference of the game was Creighton's basketball players," said Mack. "We knew the environment was going to be what it was, but I didn't think that rattled us. It may have energized Creighton, you know, but I was proud of the way my guys responded. Great home court advantage, don't get me wrong."
Creighton will hope to utilize a similar advantage on Tuesday when they host BIG EAST bottom dweller Butler.
CU Uses Home Court to Outduel Musketeers
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