A late rally by A.J. Reeves and the Friars fell short against Creighton Saturday (AP Photo/Stew Milne)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
For the longest time Saturday afternoon it looked like the 11th ranked Creighton Bluejays simply owned too much of everything for the Providence Friars.
The Jays, sporting fresh legs and clear minds after a nice break for the holidays, built a 13-point lead with 7:14 to play. But then all hell broke loose.
The Friars would not quit, finally dug in on defense, and sprinted to the finish. A wild 17-4 run peeked with a Noah Horchler drive with 7.1 seconds left that tied the game, 65-65. Yet just as suddenly, Bluejay star Marcus Zegarowski pushed the ball up the floor, got into the lane and found a streaking Christian Bishop who dunked the ball with less than a second left.
The last-second layup was the difference in a 67-65 thriller. Creighton, now 8-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big East, was led by Zegarowski’s 20 points, six 3-pointers, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Damien Jefferson (18 points) and Mitch Ballock (14) helped combine for 21 of Creighton’s 26 field goals.
“These aren’t beautiful paintings we’re creating but they’re ending up in wins,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. “In this league you don’t apologize for wins.”
Creighton’s aggressive defense did a great job keeping PC stars David Duke (13 points, 5-19 FG) and Nate Watson (13 points, 4-11 FG) in check. Duke was shadowed by Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney, two physical forwards, who did a decent job keeping him out of the lane.
PC, now 7-4 overall and 3-2 in the Big East, was not sharp offensively. The Friars finished shooting 33 percent from the floor, had 13 turnovers and clearly missed point guard Jared Bynum after he left the game before halftime with a lower body injury.
“They gave us an opportunity missing two front ends of a one-and one,” Ed Cooley said, “but they made a really good play at the end to get a win. Disappointed over the loss. I still think we’re improving. We can’t let this game beat us. Losing is very, very tough. Hopefully we can keep our kids’ heads up and prepare for the next one.”
The Duke highlights were few and far between, however.
The Jays shook off an early 22-15 deficit with a staggering 18-2 run that tipped the game in their favor. Jefferson was especially impactful, both inside and out, and the Jays forced five PC turnovers that led to easy scores at the other end.
PC also ran into a really tough way to end the half. This Ballock bomb from 40 (or longer?) feet checked the Jays into the locker room 7-of-15 from the 3-point line. Ballock (12), Jefferson (14) and Zegarowski (11) combined for 37 of their team’s 40 points.
PC’s Bynum was ruled out for the rest of the day at halftime but that didn’t stop the Friars from digging in and getting to within 40-37 early on in the second half. Cooley went with Duke at the point guard spot, then turned to freshman Alyn Breed for a push late.
Zegarowski kept firing, however, and the Jays picked up their first field goal not from the Big Three when Christian Bishop scored with 12:37 left.
Soon enough Creighton pulled out to a 61-48 lead with 7:14 left but the Friars had another push left in the gas tank. The defense finally took hold and resulted in an 11-2 run that made it just 63-59 with plenty of time (2:41) on the clock.
A few key plays didn’t go PC’s way, however. Watson missed an open follow-up rebound with 53 seconds left that could have made it a two-point game. The Friars then started fouling and Mahoney missed not one, but two, front ends of one-and-ones. After the second with 15 seconds left, Horchler was fouled snagging the rebound. Norchler made both free throws to cut the lead to 65-63.
On the inbounds, Breed applied the pressure and Antwann Jones lost the ball out of bounds.
“You have to pick your point in time (with pressure),” Cooley said, “and I thought we put it on at just the right time.”
PC looked for Duke to tie but he wisely found Horchler on the wing and the big forward spun into the lane and flicked home a short pop to tie the game with 7.1 on the clock. Cooley said he would’ve loved to call a timeout and set up his defense but Creighton quickly inbounded to Zegarowski and he sped up the floor, found Bishop for a slam and ruined PC’s comeback hopes.
Marcus Zegarowski – 20 points, 6 threes, 7 rebounds, 4 assists.
Damien Jefferson – 18 points, 8 rebounds, 6 steals.
David Duke -13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists.
Nate Watson – 13 points
*Creighton’s decision to rush the ball back at PC’s defense in the final seven seconds proved to be a good one. Star guard Zegarowski did a good job getting the ball into the lane and drew Nate Watson over just a bit on help. Watson’s man in transition ended up being Bishop, the Bluejay who ran right to the rim for a dunk.
“It was a really good basketball play,” Cooley said. “I don’t know if it’s something you can prepare for under that level of duress and anxiety. Right place, right time. Good finish.”
*Cooley mixed defenses all day and used a zone for longer than he has all season. The combination limited Creighton to 42 percent shooting and ultimately gave his team a chance to win late. The dangerous Jays hit 10-of-29 (34%) from the 3-point line, not as good as PC’s 9-of-23 or 39 %.
“They’re a very experienced team. I think this was the best team, quote team, we’ve played up to this point,” Cooley said.
UP NEXT: at Xavier, Jan. 10