The genesis of Creighton’s ugly performance Wednesday night came in the days leading up to the game against Marquette.
The Golden Eagles walked away with a 66-61 victory before a sellout crowd of 17,412 at the CenturyLink Center, avenging a three-point loss to the Bluejays 11 days earlier.
“This is the final stretch and this was a game we needed,” Marquette freshman star Henry Ellenson said. “They stole a big game at our house, and we wanted to come here and use that as motivation to get them back.”
What frustrated Creighton coach Greg McDermott was the lack of motivation he sensed from his own players — at a time that a win would have enhanced their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Creighton came out flat at the start of each half and allowed the Golden Eagles to control the end of each half. The Bluejays went almost 31 minutes before hitting their first 3-point basket, and their 3-for-21 (14.3 percent) shooting from beyond the arc was a season low.
They also played much of the game without much bite on defense. They were sloppy with the basketball, which contributed directly to a 12-2 Marquette run that gave the Golden Eagles some separation and a 10-point halftime lead.
The bottom line on the loss that dropped the Bluejays to 17-11 and 8-7 in the Big East?
“Sometimes in life,” McDermott said, “you get what you deserve.”
Because of a Big East schedule dictated by television, Creighton had eight days off between its Feb. 16 loss at Butler and Wednesday’s game.
McDermott gave his banged-up team a couple of extra days off, but he didn’t like what he saw when the Bluejays did practice.
“We haven’t practiced the best the last week or so,” he said. “I’m not sure we really wanted to practice. We deserved this, from our seniors all the way down to our freshmen.
“For whatever reason, they think they’ve arrived. They haven’t been much interested in practicing, and that’s my responsibility. I let it happen, and that’s unfortunate because we had a chance to do something special here.”
Junior guard Isaiah Zierden offered no argument.
“He’s right. We just didn’t bring it today,” Zierden said. “We probably weren’t focused enough leading up to this. We didn’t come with the same energy that we’ve had.”
Even so, Creighton had a chance to pull out the win.
The Bluejays fell behind 17-9 but hit Marquette with a 10-0 run that put them ahead. The game was tied 27-27 with five minutes left in the first half before Creighton scored just once in its final 11 possessions before halftime.
Marquette capitalized by building a 39-29 lead, then scored the first five points after halftime to take its largest lead of the game with 17:53 to play.
“One of the things we’ve been focusing on in practice is our start of halves and our end of halves,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “Ending the first half with that 10-point lead was really good, and then they were able to extend that early in the second half.”
The Bluejays got back into the game by switching defenses, pressing over three-quarters of the court to force the Golden Eagles into some mistakes and then relying on a zone in the halfcourt.
“Our man defense was terrible,” Creighton forward Cole Huff said. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t keep the ball in front of us.”
A 27-12 run after the defensive change tied it 56-56 with 4:17 to play.
That’s when Marquette’s work at closing out halves paid off again. Duane Wilson gave the Golden Eagles the lead right back with a drive for a layup with 3:58 to play.
He then made it 58-54 with another drive with 1:13 to play.
“Duane’s baskets were absolutely huge for us,” Wojciechowski said.
Creighton got back within two points on a layup by Maurice Watson with 1:02 remaining. Ellenson countered with his eighth basket with 41 seconds to play, and Marquette got two defensive stops over the next 32 seconds.
Jajuan Johnson’s two free throws with nine seconds left pushed Marquette’s lead to six. The Bluejays got a 3-point basket from Watson with 3.3 seconds remaining before Ellenson capped a 22-point, 10-rebound effort with a pair of free throws.
Johnson added support with 15 points while Wilson finished with 14. Watson’s 14 points paced Creighton, which shot 44.1 percent from the field and had more turnovers (14) than assists (13).
“Our defense won the game for us,” Wojciechowski said. “To hold them to 61 points, our defense for 40 minutes was really good. That’s our best transition defense all year. We did a great job of making them play in the halfcourt.”
A lot of factors contributed to the Creighton loss, all disappointing for a team that needed to win its final two home games to build momentum for March.
“This is the end of the season, and we shouldn’t be talking about having to correct things,” Huff said. “This isn’t about X’s and O’s. It’s about being focused and wanting to do it.
“We have three games left, and we’re going to see what we’re made of.”
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Video: Creighton-Marquette highlights
Video: Creighton postgame press conference