By Joe Clark, Sports Editor
It wasn’t always pretty, but it was gritty. No. 17 Xavier rode a solid defensive effort to a 80-73 win over Creighton at the Cintas Center on Saturday afternoon, overcoming a five-point halftime deficit.
Xavier initially looked like hungry and eager to forget Wednesday’s loss to Villanova. After junior forward Jerome Hunter’s dunk was blocked, sophomore guard Colby Jones got a steal in the backcourt and found Hunter, who was fouled and knocked down two free throws. A three-pointer by senior Nate Johnson followed, and after that Jones finished in the paint to give Xavier a 7-0 lead.
Creighton got going offensively after that sequence. As senior Ryan Hawkins hit a three, freshman guard Ryan Nembhard went unguarded to the basket for a layup. Then, senior Alex O’Connell finished at the rim to tie the game at 7-7. Creighton would end up on an 11-0 run before junior forward Zach Freemantle got on the board to cut the Creighton lead to 11-9.
It was another frustrating offensive start besides the opening burst, as the Musketeers languished to a 3-15 start from the field while Creighton built a 15-9 lead. Senior guard Adam Kunkel came through for the Musketeers again with an important three to make it a 15-12 Bluejays lead.
Xavier’s post defense was lackluster, as 12 of Creighton’s first 22 points came from inside the paint. At the under-eight media timeout, Creighton held a 22-16 lead and Xavier’s problems remained the same from the Villanova game: finishing in the post and defending in the post.
Out of the under-eight, Xavier scored four straight points on a senior center Jack Nunge layup and a steal by Freemantle. An O’Connell three followed for Creighton, but Freemantle scored down the other end to make it a three-point game.
Xavier’s defensive effort was much-improved, largely due to their switch to 2-3. They forced three straight Creighton turnovers before Hunter was fouled and headed to the line for two. The Musketeers trailed 25-23 with 3:41 left in the first half. Hunter went 0-2 at the line though, and Xavier’s scoring drought was extended over two minutes. A turnover on their next possession led to an easy layup by Nembhard, but Hunter answered with a three on the other end and then a steal.
Later, Hunter came through with a three after O’Connell hit one for Creighton. A jumper by freshman Arthur Kaluma extended the Creighton lead to three, and then Hunter missed a three and Xavier gave up an offensive board at the end of the half which led to a Kaluma layup. This ugly first half amounted to a 34-29 Creighton halftime lead.
For Xavier to win, they would need to carry over the defensive momentum from the last ten minutes of the first half and start scoring. It didn’t look too promising when Paul Scruggs picked up two quick fouls, including one on Nembhard that turned into an and-one when Nembhard finished the layup and hit the free throw to give Creighton a 37-29 lead, their largest of the day. Four straight points by Scruggs cut the deficit to four at 37-33, and after an O’Connell layup, Jones got fouled and finished through the contact.
After the made free throw, Xavier was back within one possession at 39-36. A Jerome Hunter basket cut the deficit to one, but official Wally Rutecki missed a clear foul against Paul Scruggs and down the other end Brent Hampton whistled Freemantle for a foul that sent Arthur Kaluma to the line for two. Kaluma went 1-2, as Creighton clung onto a 40-38 lead. Scruggs tied it up with a jumper from close range, but Nembhard hit a tough three to give Creighton a 43-40 lead.
Creighton grew the lead to 49-44 with 12:37 left in the game, and Xavier once again struggled to make their layups, going 7-17 in their first 24 attempts. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because the Musketeers were 7-17 on Wednesday against Villanova.
After a Nunge block, Colby Jones finished a layup to cut the Creighton lead to just one point. He scored again to give Xavier a 50-49 lead, the Musketeers first lead since the start of the first half. With 8:24 left, Xavier entered the bonus and would need to hit their free throws the rest of the way, something they struggled with in the first half and the start of the second. Nunge made the front-end of a one-and-one and made his second, giving Xavier a 55-51 lead.
Nunge knocked down two more to extend Xavier’s lead to 59-53 with under seven minutes to go. Two made free throws from Jones brought the Musketeers’ lead up to eight points, their largest of the afternoon. Xavier’s double-big lineup with Nunge and Freemantle was excellent defensively. Both of them alongside Jones, Paul Scruggs and sophomore guard Dwon Odom helped spark the Musketeers comeback.
Creighton got the game back within seven with 3:25 left in the game after two made free throws by Alex O’Connell. It got down to five after a putback by sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner. The tension was thick in the Cintas Center until Adam Kunkel answered with a three to extend the Xavier lead back to eight. O’Connell matched Kunkel though, and with 1:57 left, Xavier led 70-65.
Two free throws by Scruggs extended Xavier’s lead to 72-65, and Creighton couldn’t score on the other end. After Paul Scruggs gave Xavier an eight-point lead with under a minute left, O’Connell hit a deep three to bring him to 22 points on the day and bring Creighton back within five points. Scruggs knocked down two more free throws and Xavier took a 77-70 lea. Creighton answered with another three, and the lead was whittled down to 77-73.
With 29.4 seconds left, Jones headed to the line and missed his first before knocking down the second to make it a 78-73 game. A Freemantle dunk off a turnover clinched the Xavier win, and the Musketeers would get back on track with an 80-73 victory.
Xavier returns to action on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. against DePaul at Wintrust Arena.