A signature performance by Maurice Watson, a signature win for Creighton.
Watson, the Bluejays’ bedeviling point guard, scored a career-high 32 points Tuesday night to guide Creighton to a 70-56 upset of No. 5 Xavier before 17,011 at the CenturyLink Center.
“What a performance by Mo Watson,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He’s as good as anyone we’ve played all year. He controlled the game.”
It came less than a week after Watson and his teammates feared their season was spinning out of control when a 25-point loss to Villanova extended a losing skid to three games.
They picked up a get-right win over DePaul last Saturday before beating a Xavier team that had steamrolled its way to 21 wins.
“To be able to win two big games,” Creighton center Geoffrey Groselle said, “speaks a lot for Wop’s leadership and for the guys to be able to turn this thing around.”
“Wop” is the nickname hung on Watson when he was a high-school star in Philadelphia. He transferred to Creighton after two highly productive seasons at Boston University partly because he wanted to take his game to a bigger stage.
He turned in a virtuoso performance Tuesday against a team that has garnered support to be one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament. He made the night’s biggest shots and plays.
Watson made 11 of 21 shots, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out five assists and picked up two steals in playing all but two minutes of the game.
“Maurice was on another level tonight,” teammate Cole Huff said.
The same could be said about Watson’s teammates, especially after they set the tone on defense to hold Xavier to its season-low scoring total.
Creighton limited Xavier to 30 percent field-goal shooting and protected the 3-point line; the Musketeers made 1 of 21 attempts (4.8 percent) from beyond the arc.
The Bluejays battled Xavier, the best rebounding team in the league, to a draw on the boards and matched the Musketeers’ intensity all over the court.
“They’re one of the elite teams in the country, and for us to win, we were going to have to be special on one end or the other,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We were going to have to have an incredible shooting night and survive defensively, or we were going to have to be incredible defensively and survive offensively.
“That’s what we did. I thought we made most of their looks from 3 difficult. They countered by going inside, and we were willing to give up some of that to keep them off the 3-point line.”
McDermott credited Groselle for helping set the early tone that stymied Xavier’s offense.
“They scored on 2 of 16 possessions at the start of the game, and I really thought the team just fed off Geoff’s energy,” McDermott said. “He and Maurice are our leaders, and they did a fabulous job.”
With Xavier stuck in neutral, Creighton went on a 16-0 run that included a pair of 3-point baskets each from James Milliken and Isaiah Zierden to take a 21-4 lead seven minutes into the game.
“From our end of it, I felt like there was no readiness to play,” Mack said. “There were specific things we went over, like not giving up transition 3s and then settling for jump shots.
“That’s disappointing, and that’s why we got our butt handed to us tonight.”
The Musketeers overcame their early struggles to close within seven points late in the half. Creighton managed to stretch its lead back to 10 points at halftime, then started the second half on a 10-2 run that left it with a 47-29 lead with 16:11 to play.
That’s when things got interesting. Xavier switched from its man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone, and Watson experienced some initial frustration in attacking it.
“Those guys have great length, and I got kind of tentative,” Watson said. “My teammates told me to stick with it and continue to be aggressive, and things started to open up.”
Not before Xavier twice trimmed its deficit to five points, the first at 53-48 with 6:51 to play and the second at 55-50 with 6:07 remaining. That’s when Watson went back to work.
He made a jumper, and then Huff buried a 3-point shot from the corner off an extra pass from Zierden to make it 60-50. Watson followed by making his next three shots, the final basket putting Creighton ahead 66-53 with 2:02 remaining.
That sealed a deal that Creighton has had difficulty completing since the start of last season. Tuesday’s game was the Bluejays’ 15th against a ranked team since the start of the 2014-15 season.
They picked up a pair of home victories over teams ranked 18th, but several bigger prizes had eluded their grasp.
McDermott called it a “heck of a win for our program.”
Said Huff: “Now we know we can play with the best of the best.”
Huff added scoring support for Watson by finishing with 11 points, while Zierden and Milliken each finished with nine. Jalen Reynolds paced Xavier with 17 points, but Creighton held Trevon Bluiett to four points — 12 below his team-leading average.
With the win, the Bluejays improved to 16-9 and 7-5 in the Big East. Watson has played a big part in helping lift Creighton off the bottom of the league and into a position where it can make some noise in the stretch run.
“Coach Mac and Creighton took a chance on me when we decided to transfer,” Watson said. “We’ve put in a lot of work, and to see it pay off and to see everyone have faith in me, it makes me a little emotional.
“I’m happy my guys had the faith in me.”
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Video: Maurice Watson interview
Video: Game highlights
Video: Creighton postgame press conference
Video: Xavier postgame press conference