Jumper

Junior Ty-Shon Alexander rises up for a jump shot during the second half of Creighton's loss to Villanova Tuesday. The Jays managed just seven points over the game's final eight minutes.

The Jays held an eight-point lead with just over eight minutes remaining against No. 16 Villanova on Tuesday. It was 52-44 after Christian Bishop’s momentous and-1 at the 8:22 mark.

And then, suddenly, Creighton just could not score.

Creighton managed seven points over the final eight minutes. Two from the free-throw line after a Villanova technical foul. Three off a Mitch Ballock 3-pointer. Two from a last-second Marcus Zegarowski layup.

That was it.

Seven points in eight minutes. The Jays went 2 of 11 from the floor with two turnovers in their final 13 possessions. And Villanova earned the 64-59 comeback win Tuesday night, finishing the night on a 20-7 run.

So what happened? Why did CU sink into a slump at the wrong time?

We noticed three things that the Jays were missing down the stretch:

1. Pace/urgency

Here’s why Villanova coach Jay Wright thinks defending Creighton is so difficult: You have to stop CU in transition, then you have to guard its actions, then you have to defend creativity in one-on-one isolations. Every time down. “It’s really hard to do,” Wright said.

But the Bluejays let the Wildcats off the hook a little bit down the stretch. Because they regularly walked the ball up the court.

Instead of putting pressure on Villanova and making its defense work for a full 30 seconds, oftentimes the Creighton possession didn’t truly start until the shot clock hit 20. And that’s not Creighton basketball.

Some of that is dictated by the game flow, certainly. Creighton had a late lead and it wanted to manage the clock. Plus, Villanova scored on 12 of its final 17 possessions. That took some steam out of the Jays’ desire to push tempo.

But ultimately, in crunch time, Tuesday’s game turned into a half-court affair. And that was to the Wildcats’ benefit.

2. Tough-shot making

Think back on the three other close games the Jays have been in this year (and won). Ballock came off a screen and nailed a dagger against Louisiana Tech. Zegarowski whirled and twirled in the lane before sinking a short fadeaway to seal it in overtime against Texas Tech. Ballock scooped up a deflected pass and buried a key 3-pointer at Arizona State.

In crunch time, especially against good teams, nothing is ever easy.

Set plays are difficult to execute. The referees are more likely to swallow their whistles. Sometimes, you simply have to take and make tough shots. Villanova did Tuesday. Aside from Ballock’s 3-pointer, Creighton wasn’t able to.

The Jays had their chances, too. With Creighton still ahead 54-50, Damien Jefferson missed a dunk try and Zegarowski couldn’t knock down a 3-pointer. After a Villanova bucket, Zegarowski drove to the rim but didn’t finish the layup. Denzel Mahoney had a top-of-the-key 3-pointer to potentially tie the game with 45 seconds left, but he missed it.

3. Ball movement

Let’s start with Villanova’s ball screen defense in the second half. Its forwards, hedging on the screen or switching altogether, did just enough to keep Creighton’s ball handlers from turning the corner and attacking downhill — while also plugging the passing lane to prevent a dish to CU’s rolling big man.

As a result, the Wildcats’ help defenders did not have to rotate down to cover a big — they could stay glued to shooters.

And thus, the Jays’ ball screen actions were neutralized.

So Creighton had to try other ways to generate movement down the stretch. And it was a struggle. CU averaged just 2.2 passes per possession over the final eight minutes. At times, the ball stuck to one side of the floor. When the Jays did run good, well-spaced, collaborative offense, they simply missed the shots (like Jefferson’s dunk or Zegarowski’s 3).

» Here are three postgame quotes about Creighton’s offense during the final eight minutes:

Wright said it was Villanova’s best defensive effort of the year. But what was different down the stretch? Said Wright: “I didn’t see anything different. I thought they had a couple layups they missed. We did have pretty good length on them. But I’ve seen them finish over long guys. They did against Marquette.”

McDermott: “We had some opportunities there. DJ comes flying in there and tries to dunk it. That’s a play that if he makes it, the crowd goes crazy and the momentum is in our favor. … You have plays like that during the course of the game. You hope they fall in your favor. (Tuesday) they didn’t.”

Zegarowski: “They were really sound on defense. They knew what to take away. That’s about it.”

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