Maurice Watson cramped up with 30.5 seconds left. A blessing in disguise.
His coach saw him limping and sent a substitute to the scorer’s table. The horn blared and Watson crossed the boundary, making his way down the bench, from Greg McDermott to his teammates to Creighton’s support staff, distributing hugs the way he dishes assists.
He heard 17,000 fans roar — just for him — and he remembered a little kid back in Philly.
“It took me back to when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “It’s like when you’re in the driveway counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, yelling, ‘Aaaaaahhhh.’ You hear that crowd.”
That sound is what Watson envisioned when he transferred from Boston University two years ago. That sound is what motivated him when people said he was too small to play in the Big East. That sound is what drove him last year as he sat on Creighton’s bench, watching teammates lose one nail-biter after another. You wait and you wait and you wait and, finally, suddenly, it’s here.
Watson tried to hold back tears.
“I put my heart into this and I put my heart into these guys. Seeing them be able to smile and rejoice, it kinda just hit me hard, you know?”
A Big East brawl broke out Tuesday night at the CenturyLink Center, and Creighton’s only chance to beat No. 5 Xavier was to jump on the back of the littlest man on the floor.
Watson controlled the action like an All-America quarterback, setting the tone with precision passes and stamping the exclamation point with acrobatic layups. He scored 32 points, including 22 after halftime.
Victory wasn’t easy; it never is for this team. When Xavier slapped a 1-3-1 zone on the Jays early in the second half, Watson slipped out of his comfort zone. “I couldn’t see,” he said, only half-joking. Too many Musketeers in his way.
The 18-point lead withered away. Uh oh, was this going to be like the Providence loss? Or Georgetown?
Come up short again, and the Jays would’ve continued a painful pattern of late-game failures. Come up short again, and the Jays could’ve kissed their NCAA tournament dream goodbye.
Watson stepped up just in time. After Xavier cut it to 53-48, Watson scored five buckets in the next 11 possessions. He was relentless. He was brilliant.
Among his fans Tuesday night were two old friends from back home. At 1 p.m., they landed in Omaha. By 9 p.m., they were beating their T-shirts stamped with Watson’s picture.
“We came from Philly to make sure that we got this win,” Anthony Postell said. “He showed out.”
Where does Watson’s performance rank in Coach McDermott’s memory? Because of the circumstances, Mac said, “it’s right up there at the top.”
That’s high praise considering the superstar who came before him. Watson is no Doug McDermott. When the season’s over, he might not even be All-Big East. But no player in the league means more to his team.
Watson, who played 38 minutes Tuesday, is the motor and the rudder. He dictates tempo and directs the offense. The ball is seemingly in his hands for half of every possession. Very few teammates can get open shots without him.
No wonder that in conference games he leads the Big East in assists (6.7) and he’s third in turnovers (3.6). Put that much responsibility on one player, and he’s bound to have bad possessions — even bad nights. But Watson’s good nights make you wonder how high he can take this team, especially next year when Marcus Foster joins the fray.
You know, it’s funny. When Creighton joined the Big East, critics (and supporters) said the program needed to get more athletes like Foster. Bigger and tougher and meaner. These Valley guys just won’t do.
Greg McDermott, they said, needed to pursue 6-foot-10 bigs and 6-6 wings. Well, Xavier has those athletes, including a four-star point guard from Detroit. Edmond Sumner, 6-foot-5, didn’t stand a chance Tuesday against his 5-10 adversary.
It was only one night. A month from Selection Sunday, Creighton isn’t where it wants to be. But in those roars, you can hear momentum building.
It’s amazing what a little Mo can do.
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Video: Maurice Watson interview
Video: Creighton press conference
Video: Xavier press conference