DePaul almost put a chainsaw to Creighton's Lumberjack festivities Friday night.
Twenty-point underdogs, the Blue Demons were down one point against the No. 12 Bluejays with 7½ minutes to play and were still down four points with 6:15 remaining.
The difference down the stretch was that Creighton had a two-time All-American on its side and DePaul did not. Doug McDermott scored nine straight points to stretch that four-point lead into a 13-point bulge that helped carry the Bluejays to a 78-66 victory in front of 18,323 at CenturyLink Center.
“They did a good job of going to him down the stretch,” said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, referring to McDermott. “He clearly made winning plays and free throws. We did not make winning plays and we missed a couple of free throws coming down the stretch.”
McDermott finished with 32 points, which included a 13-of-14 performance from the foul line. He admitted he missed some shots he normally makes, but he was money when the Bluejays found themselves in a tight spot against an opponent at the bottom of the Big East standings.
“Anyone on our team is capable of putting points on the board,” McDermott said. “But I was just trying to be aggressive there. I got to the line and I really felt that helped my confidence.
“It was great that my teammates were finding me in the right spots. I didn't finish a bunch of them but I was able to get to the line and it was great to close out the game like that.”
Creighton had been promoting Friday's game as Lumberjack Night in honor of senior forward Ethan Wragge. The crowd turned out in plaid, and a couple of fans behind the DePaul bench wielded cardboard chainsaws.
But just as Creighton's previous opponent did, DePaul focused on keeping Wragge from getting attempts to knock down shots from beyond the arc. He shot five times, making three, in finishing with nine points.
St. John's had limited Wragge to three shots in the Jan. 28 game that Creighton won 63-60 with McDermott scoring 39 points. Purnell said DePaul came into the game with the idea of trying to double-team the Creighton star — but switched its defensive strategy when McDermott did a good job of finding open teammates as the Bluejays blew out to a 14-point lead in the first half.
“He was doing such a good job of hitting other guys that we decided to single cover him, let him get 25 or 30 but limit their other guys, particularly Wragge,” Purnell said. “We did a decent job of that but Wragge hit a couple of big ones for them.”
Asked about the defensive strategies employed by St. John's and DePaul to neutralize Wragge's 3-point impact, Creighton coach Greg McDermott replied, “Doug keeps getting 30 plus. They have a choice to make. The last two teams took Ethan away and Doug scored 39 and 32.
“We put them on the same side of the floor and wish them (opponents) good luck.”
Austin Chatman chipped in 11 points for the Bluejays, who improved to 19-3 and kept a hold on first place in the league by improving to 9-1. Creighton got a big lift from Grant Gibbs.
Playing for the first time since dislocating his kneecap in a Jan. 7 game at DePaul, Gibbs had seven points, five rebounds and a game-high eight assists.
He played 21 minutes, a few more than expected, but that was because the Bluejays were short a guard with junior Devin Brooks ill. That situation was compounded when Jahenns Manigat and Avery Dingman each got in foul trouble at the start of the second half.
“It was really rejuvenating to get back out there with my teammates,” Gibbs said. “I have a little work to do to get back to 100 percent but for the most part, it felt good.
“I just need to get my legs and my wind back.”
Gibbs entered the game to a loud ovation with 16:59 left in the opening half. For the most part, Creighton controlled the early action, using an 18-4 spurt that McDermott capped with a layup with 7:56 left to turn a 13-13 tie into a 31-17 lead.
DePaul closed to 39-31 at halftime, then set about to make the Bluejays sweat out the final 20 minutes by relying on its ability to drive the ball at the basket and rebound shots when it missed.
The Blue Demons finished with a 41-31 advantage on the boards and a 20-9 edge in second-chance points. Ten of those second-chance points came in the second half.
“The fact that we rebounded the ball speaks to the fact that we fought and battled and made a game of this thing in the second half,” said Purnell, whose team dropped to 10-14 and 2-9 in the league.
Down by 10 after Gibbs made a 3-pointer with 14:44 to play, DePaul got within a point twice in the final nine-plus minutes. The first instance came when Forrest Robinson made back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Creighton's lead to 57-56.
After a jumper by Will Artino hiked Creighton's lead back to three, Durrell McDonald's layup made it 59-58. Two McDermott free throws and Wragge's last 3-pointer of the night stretched the Bluejays' lead back to six, and it stood at 64-60 after Billy Garrett Jr.'s jumper with 6:15 remaining.
McDermott made one of two free throws at 5:32, two more at 4:59 and two more at 4:10 to make it 69-60. On Creighton's next possession, Gibbs set up a McDermott drive with a slick pass, and two more McDermott free throws with 2:40 remaining put Creighton ahead 73-60.
“Doug gets a little antsy on 3-point shots if he doesn't make a couple in a row,” Greg McDermott said. “He turned down a couple that I would have preferred he would have shot, but his movement was so good.
“He had a couple of multiple curls to the basket on the same possessions. That kind of activity when you're getting knocked around takes a lot out of you. He played a lot of minutes, and he stepped up and made big free throws and big plays when we needed him the most.”
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Video: Highlights from Creighton-DePaul
Video: Creighton coach Greg McDermott
Video: DePaul coach Oliver Purnell
Video: Fox Sports highlights of Creighton-DePaul
Video: Recap from Fox Sports broadcast team
Video: Doug McDermott talks to Fox Sports