OMAHA, Neb. - Villanova's experience and ability to stay calm in a raucous setting against a fellow Top 10 team, enabled the Wildcats to extend their two-year win streak to 20.
With Jalen Brunson scoring a career-high 27 points, the defending national champions defeated Creighton, 80-70, on Saturday in a battle of Big East unbeatens before 18,831 revved-up fans at sold-out CenturyLink Center.
The No. 1 ranked Wildcats (14-0 overall, 2-0 Big East) overcame a slow start that saw them trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half against No. 10 Creighton (13-1, 1-1).
"When you play them, you know you have to be tough and smart and it's going to take 40 minutes and when your team wins, in what has to be one of the tougher environments, you feel great..." Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Kris Jenkins, who had averaged just 10 points in his previous five games, scored 21 points, one shy of his season-high, while Josh Hart overcame a rough first half to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Using just a seven-man rotation, Villanova received eight points and four rebounds from Eric Paschall off the bench in 23 effective minutes.
Yet it was Brunson who truly stood out the most. The sophomore guard hit 10 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 7 from three-point range, and both his foul shots.
"He made plays that changed the game," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
Trailing, 24-14, with under 12 minutes left in the first half, Villanova went on an 11-0 run to get back in the game, with Brunson scoring the first eight points and Jenkins hitting a three.
That was a true test for Villanova because when the Bluejays took that double-digit lead, the Wildcats said it was so loud they couldn't hear themselves think.
"This environment was one of the crazier ones I have been in and you have to love it," Hart said.
The Wildcats showed their savvy by keeping their poise.
"If you are not going to get rattled when the score was 24-14, then you aren't going to get rattled because they won't play in a tougher environment all year," said McDermott, whose team was led by Marcus Foster, a Kansas State transfer who had 22 points.
Brunson was up against Creighton point guard Maurice Watson Jr. The senior from Philadelphia's Boys' Latin High entered the game leading the nation in assists (9.1 per game). Watson, who eventually fouled out, had six points, nine assists, and three turnovers.
"The way they played it, I saw a little space and I was taking shots," Brunson said. "It comes with coach and captains having confidence in me."
Not to mention the confidence he has in himself.
The game was much closer than the final score indicated.
Villanova led, 63-54, on a runner by Donte DiVincenzo with 10:38 left but Creighton then got back in the game, going on a 9-0 run to tie the score on two free throws by Watson with 7:40 remaining.
Leading, 70-67, Villanova then got some breathing room on a Hart turnaround jumper in the lane and Brunson's jumper off the dribble making it 74-67 with 1:22 left.
Finally it was enough separation, and the defending champs had survived another shot not only from a quality team but its crowd as well.