OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Marcus Zegarowski who showed up against Villanova on Saturday was the Marcus Zegarowski that Creighton had been waiting to see.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
Zegarowski scored a season-high 25 points to lead the 19th-ranked Bluejays in an 86-70 rout of No. 5 Villanova in a meeting of the Big East’s top two teams.
The performance was a long time coming. Zegarowski was the conference’s preseason player of the year, but he hasn’t been 100% while battling through injuries the last 11 months. He missed the end of last season with a knee injury that required offseason surgery, and he was bothered by a hamstring injury in January.
“It takes time to get your sea legs back,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “He’s done an unbelievable job managing some of the injury issues he’s had this year. I’ve seen him gradually get where he could be, and today was the pinnacle of a lot of hard work he’s put in to get back.”
Zegarowski led an offense that was at its high-tempo best. He scored 17 points in the first half. Mitch Ballock stepped in with 17 of his 20 points in the second.
Zegarowski was a constant throughout and bested Collin Gillespie in the highly anticipated matchup of two of the nation’s top point guards.
“I try to stay aggressive as much as possible, whether that’s scoring or making plays for my teammates,” Zegarowski said. “My teammates got me going early on, and that opened things up for them as well. It was a great team win.”
Creighton (16-5, 12-4 Big East) won for the sixth time in seven games and knocked off a top-five opponent for the first time since beating Villanova in February 2018.
The Wildcats (13-3, 8-2) sustained their most lopsided loss since a 25-point defeat to Ohio State in November 2019.
The Bluejays had their best shooting first half of the season (65.4%) and finished at 59.3%.
Ballock made three of his six 3-pointers during a 13-2 run that extended the Bluejays advantage to 67-48.
Zegarowski had struggled with his shot the previous three games. He made three 3s in the first half, including one that gave Creighton the lead for good. He also accounted for the prettiest play of the game when he drove baseline on Gillespie for a reverse layup.
Early in the second half, Zegarowski made a move to get Gillespie to go the other way, then swished a one-handed floater in the lane.
“He totally controlled the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We had different types of coverages on him. None of them worked. I think it’s because he’s so smart. He read every change we made and really sliced us.”
Christian Bishop, the Bluejays’ 6-foot-7 center, made six of seven shots and scored 16 points, and converted two lobs from Zegarowski and one from Denzel Mahoney into first-half dunks.
Villanova came to Omaha off its best offensive game, scoring a season-high 96 points in a blowout of Marquette. The Wildcats had shot 70% in the second half of that game and a season-best 63% overall.
The Wildcats weren’t nearly as good at CHI Health Center, shooting 33% in the second half and 37.5% for the game.
Justin Moore had 21 points and Jermaine Samuels added 16 for Villanova.
Jermaine Robinson-Earl, who came in shooting 56% and averaging just under 20 points over his previous four games, was 3 of 13 and held to eight points.
“Creighton was just outstanding right from the get-go,” Wright said. “Defensively they played extremely well. Their energy level was outstanding. Offensively, when they get going like that, they’re as dangerous as anybody in the country.”
Villanova: Defense has been a concern for coach Jay Wright, and this game exposed it. If the offense isn’t operating at a high level, the Wildcats can’t count on their defense to bail them out.
Creighton: With the supporting cast around him, Zegarowski can lead the Bluejays on a deep postseason run if he keeps playing at or near the level he did Saturday.
GOOD, AND BAD, CROWD
This was only the second game Villanova has played with fans in attendance. The other game was at Texas. The crowd was about 2,500 at the CHI Health Center, about 12% of capacity.
Wright said he enjoyed the atmosphere, to a point.
“They had just a little crowd today, but even their little crowd, it was a little different. I hate to say it, but it was nice, the energy in the building. Unfortunately, it was for them. I think that lights a fire in them. When they get going with their speed, it’s impressive.”
Villanova hosts Connecticut on Saturday.
Creighton hosts DePaul on Feb. 24.
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