CINCINNATI (AP) — With Xavier needing a quality win to bolster its NCAA Tournament hopes, coach Travis Steele called each player the night before the team’s game against No. 13 Creighton.
The Musketeers got the message.
Paul Scruggs scored 23 points and Zach Freemantle added 17 leading Xavier to a 77-69 victory Saturday.
Xavier, which has a 22-point win over No. 7 Oklahoma from December on its resume, badly needed this one — especially after losing three of four.
“Our guys were ready,” Steele said. “Our team had a different vibe to it today, it just did. Every player positively impacted us on the floor. Creighton was playing as well as any team in the country.”
Freemantle also had 10 rebounds for Xavier (13-5, 6-5) for his fifth straight double-double. The Musketeers led by as many as 13 points and staved off a late comeback by Creighton.
Damien Jefferson led Creighton (17-6, 13-5 Big East) with 19 points, and Marcus Zegarowski had 15. Mitch Ballock and Denzel Mahoney each had 11 points for the Bluejays, whose four-game winning streak was snapped.
The Musketeers got off to a strong start as Freemantle’s 3-pointer capped a 12-0 run to put Xavier ahead 25-16.
“We came in trying to slow Scruggs and Freemantle, and didn’t do a very good job,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Kudos to Xavier. They played really well. Two good players stepped up for them today.”
Creighton took advantage of a four-minute scoring drought by the Musketeers with a 9-0 run, finished off by Jefferson’s 3-pointer to tie it.
Xavier took a 33-31 lead into halftime with Scruggs’ 11 points leading the way.
When Creighton defeated the Musketeers 66-61 in Omaha in December, both teams shot poorly.
Things heated up in the second half Saturday with the teams combining to hit eight of nine field goal attempts.
But it was the Musketeers who took full advantage with a 10-0 run early in the second half.
Adam Kunkel hit back-to-back 3-pointers giving the Musketeers an 11-point lead, their largest lead to that point. Kunkel finished with 12 points.
Dwon Odom’s drive and layup put Xavier ahead 61-50 with 7:53 left. Odom also scored 12 points.
The Musketeers outscored the Bluejays 44-32 in the paint.
“They were just sagging off a little bit, giving me driving lanes,” Odom said. “Just wanted to stay patient and get our offense flowing.”
Creighton rallied from 13 points down in the closing minutes with Ballock’s 3-pointer, his third of the night, cutting the Bluejays’ deficit to three with two minutes left. But the Musketeers held on.
“I feel like they played like they were hungry,” Jefferson said of Xavier. “We didn’t execute the way coach wanted us to. We need to fix it before a tough game against Villanova.”
Creighton is always tough to beat in Omaha, but this season it has been equally dominant on the road. The Bluejays are one shy of a program-record eighth conference road win. “We haven’t had many shortcomings on the road this year,” McDermott said. “Tonight we got beat by a team that played really well.” With Saturday’s loss, Creighton is now 7-2 in league play away from the CHI Health Center.
As if three interruptions due to COVID-19 didn’t cause enough issues for the Musketeers, the loss of senior guard Nate Johnson to a left leg injury left them without their third-leading scorer and one of the top 3-point shooters in the country. Johnson participated in Senior Day festivities before Saturday’s game wearing a walking boot. “It’s sad hearing about that,” Odom said. “Nate is a big part of the team. We have to fight even more, push even more. He’s still on the sideline with us.”
Creighton: at Villanova on Wednesday.
Xavier: at Georgetown on Tuesday.
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