Gimpy knee and all, Cole Huff delivered a performance Saturday against DePaul that allowed Creighton to take a step in the right direction.
The junior forward scored a season-high 28 points as the Bluejays snapped a three-game skid with an 88-66 victory before 17,139 at the CenturyLink Center.
Eighteen of Huff’s points came in the final 5:14 of the first half. His last 10 came in a crucial second-half run to thwart DePaul’s chances of getting back in the game.
“Cole gave us a huge lift,” coach Greg McDermott said. “For him to stick with it the way he has, playing when he can’t hardly practice, is a credit to him.
“It was good to see the ball go in for him today because he deserves it by continuing to work and stay focused.”
Huff made 9 of 11 shots from the field, including 4 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc, in 22 minutes of playing time. He also had four rebounds and three steals.
“Besides the offense today, I thought he made a couple of great defensive plays, and he hunted down some rebounds in traffic,” McDermott said. “He played a complete basketball game, not just on offense.”
The same could be said about Huff’s teammates, who showed greater resolve than in losses to Seton Hall and No. 3 Villanova in their previous games. Those defeats, coupled with squandering a big lead in a loss at Georgetown, put Creighton at a critical juncture entering Saturday’s game.
They responded with an energetic effort that included:
» Solid defense. The Bluejays held a DePaul team that had scored 77 points in upsetting No. 10 Providence in its previous game to 53 points in the game’s first 34½ minutes. The Blue Demons had scored 80 against Creighton in mid-January.
“I think we took some steps forward defensively today, especially in the first half,” Huff said. “We need to keep defending and then knock shots down on offense. If we do that, we’ll be in solid position.”
» Improved rebounding. Seton Hall and Villanova combined to outrebound Creighton by 30 and torched the Bluejays with 34 second-chance points. Creighton finished a 43-25 rebounding edge against DePaul, giving up five offensive rebounds.
“We went into this game knowing that they had twice as many rebounds as Providence in their last game,” center Geoffrey Groselle said. “We knew we had to box out and make sure we got every single rebound.”
» More zip from start to finish. The Bluejays had turned in a lethargic effort against Seton Hall, then went into a shell after Villanova ratcheted up its effort in Wednesday’s game in Philadelphia. Saturday, Creighton managed to keep its energy level constant.
“It was great to see that we finally came out ready to play,” Groselle said. “We knew we were a better team than we’ve shown in the past three games. We’ve really gotten after it in practice, and we made sure we were ready for this one.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Bluejays (15-9, 6-5 Big East) — No. 6 Xavier and its 21 wins will be in town on Tuesday — but the victory provided some relief to a team that needed a shot of confidence.
“We just have to keep moving this forward,” Groselle said.
The 7-foot center did his part, scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Maurice Watson finished with 12 points and nine assists, and James Milliken came off the bench to add 12 points.
It was Huff, though, who supplied Creighton with its biggest lift. After a solid start to the season, the 6-8 transfer from Nevada hit some tough times. He hurt his shoulder in a December loss at Loyola and has been plagued by a flare-up of an old knee injury for the last month.
The latter has limited him to minimal practice time. With his shot going south at times, Huff hasn’t been able to get into the gym and work out the kinks.
“It’s more of a mental thing,” Huff said. “I’ve just had to fight through some injuries. The training staff has done a great job as well as Coach Mac and the rest of the staff.
“They’re trying to keep me fresh so when I do get my time on the court, I can produce. Hopefully, it will pay off like it did today.”
Huff had scored 44 points and made just 14 of 47 shots — including 7 of 26 3-point attempts — in his last eight games. He then turned Saturday’s game with some can’t-miss shooting, making a 21-17 Creighton lead a 43-27 halftime advantage.
After two Isaiah Zierden free throws started the spurt, Huff went to work. He converted a four-point play, made a pair of jumpers and added a fast-break dunk after a steal.
He finished the half 7 of 7 from the field with another jumper and two 3-point baskets — the last with six seconds to play — to produce the 16-point halftime lead.
“We gave up some free space, and once he made a couple of shots, he just got it going,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “You have to give him credit for hanging in there through injuries and the things he’s been through.”
Creighton’s lead grew to 20 points early in the second half before DePaul (8-15, 2-9) countered with a 12-2 run to get back within 10 points with 14:19 left. The Bluejays restored order with a 21-9 run that included Huff’s final 10 points of the game.
“I haven’t made shots like that since last year on the scout team,” Huff said. “I didn’t want to lose my concentration, and my teammates did an unbelievable job of getting me the ball.
“They got me open, and it’s just a credit to them for sticking with me through some bad games when I didn’t have it.”
The Bluejays don’t have any intention of abandoning their teammate, Watson said.
“We know how hard Cole has worked, and we feel sorry about the injuries he’s had,” Watson said. “Cole lifted our spirits with a game like this.
“When one person gets going, we feed off of that. He got going tonight.”
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