OMAHA, Neb. — The game was in doubt Tuesday night right up to the final minute. The sellout crowd of 17,682 was trying to will Creighton to an upset of No. 16 Villanova. Only one thing was certain.
There was no way Collin Gillespie was going to leave the court, even though he suffered a cramp in his left calf or foot late in the game.
Gillespie gutted it out and so did the Wildcats. He scored 24 points, seven of them coming in a closing 16-5 run that carried the visitors to a 64-59 victory over the Bluejays in a Big East game at CHI Health Center, a win that broke a seven-game conference road losing streak for Villanova.
Gillespie, the tough 6-foot-3 junior, sank 8 of 10 shots from the floor and 4 of 5 from three-point range and pulled down seven rebounds, six in the final 5:16. His contribution was vital given that without it, the rest of the Wildcats (11-3, 2-1 Big East) shot 29.4% (15-for-51) overall and 2-for-28 from three-point range.
“He had a cramp but we weren’t taking him out,” coach Jay Wright said. “We were going to call a timeout to give him a rest, but we weren’t subbing for him. He’s our heart and soul. He plays like all those great Villanova guards. He played with them; he learned from them; he knows what it is. I’m so proud of him.”
Another key contributor was freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds and had a key block on Denzel Mahoney that helped preserve a three-point lead with 1:34 to play.
The Wildcats, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and 10 in the second, came out determined to stop the Bluejays’ deadly three-point shooting attack and basically succeeded there. Creighton (11-4, 1-2) sank just 3 of 14 tries from beyond the arc, compared to their averages of 9.3 makes and 25.5 attempts coming into the game.
The Bluejays did take advantage of some overextensions by the Villanova defense to score 36 points in the paint. Christian Bishop, a 6-7 sophomore, scored 16 points, almost double his average. But the team’s three best three-point shooters — Markus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitch Ballock — went a combined 1-for-10.
“I’m so proud of our guys because that’s a really hard team to defend,” Wright said. “I really think they’re one of the best offensive teams in the country. I think [coach Greg McDermott] has got one of the best offensive minds, so therefore to play like that is a hell of an effort and it’s definitely our best defensive effort of the year. Our offense wasn’t pretty.”
A technical foul assessed against Wright with 7:17 to play led to Alexander’s two free throws and a 54-48 Creighton lead before the comeback began. The Wildcats scored the next seven points, capped by Gillespie’s three, to take their first lead since it was 1-0.
Ballock then hit the Bluejays’ only three-point basket of the second half to regain the lead at 57-55 with 3:19 left. But Bey gave the Cats the lead for good with a three and Gillespie followed with a 10-foot pull-up to make it 60-57 at the 2-minute mark.
Gillespie then hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 8.5 seconds remaining at the end of a long possession in which Creighton used up the four fouls it had to give. After a Zegarowski layup, Justin Moore iced the game by converting a 1-and-1 with 3.3 seconds to play.
“That’s what we do,” Gillespie said. “That’s Villanova basketball, coming into an opponent’s arena, just staying 94 by 50 feet with your brothers and your coaches and knowing that there’s going to be ups and downs throughout the game, just battle for a full 40 minutes.