In the span of 48 hours, Creighton's basketball team went from horrid to torrid.
The quick turnaround from a subpar performance against Providence on Saturday to Monday's almost other-worldly effort against fourth-ranked Villanova had its genesis in the locker room after the 13-point loss to the Friars.
“Obviously, the coaching staff wasn't too pleased with our performance against Providence,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “After we lost, Coach Mac looked at everybody in the locker room and said we had to learn from this and that we needed to flip the page as quickly as we can.”
The next day, in a practice that lasted a little more than an hour, Creighton coach Greg McDermott reiterated that message to his players. By the end of the workout, forward Ethan Wragge sensed the players had bought into the need to move on to the next challenge on the schedule.
“We were not happy with the way Providence went down,” Wragge said. “We were mad at each other, we were mad at how we prepared and played. You can't go on a Big East road trip and go 0-2.
“We knew this one was for first place in the league. Before the game, Grant (Gibbs) said this is a big opportunity for us and that we needed to embrace it rather than run away from it.”
The Bluejays followed the advice of their injured teammate to perfection against the Wildcats. Creighton made its first nine 3-point shots, with Wragge burying seven of the baskets, in building a 19-point lead before the game was seven minutes old.
The Bluejays faltered a bit late in the first half, allowing Villanova to draw within 13 points, but then buried the Wildcats' comeback hopes with a 36-9 run to open the second half.
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By the time the final buzzer sounded in a nearly empty Wells Fargo Center, Creighton had fashioned one of the outstanding performances of this, or perhaps any, season.
The Bluejays had made 21 of 35 shots from 3-point range to break the program record by one. Wragge finished with nine 3-pointers to tie the school record set by Creighton's most heralded marksman, Kyle Korver.
Creighton's 96-68 victory produced a tidal wave of national attention, most of which was focused on the Bluejays' superlative offensive showing. But they made it all possible by cleaning up some shortcomings exposed in the 81-68 loss to Providence.
A key component in the Bluejays' fast start in their new league was the way they had held up on defense and rebounding in their first five wins. They had outrebounded all but one Big East opponent, with Xavier winning the battle of the boards by one in its loss to the Bluejays.
Creighton also had held three of its first five opponents to 41 percent or lower shooting from the field.
“When we can get teams to take the shots we want and then rebound,” Manigat said, “it allows us to get our offense going.”
Providence short-circuited the Bluejays' attack by attacking the glass and making shots. The Friars became the first team to shoot better than 50 percent against Creighton this season, finishing at 50.9 percent.
Providence also finished with a 33-27 rebounding advantage, including an 11-6 edge on the offensive glass. The extra possessions not only resulted in 15 second-chance points but also enabled the Friars to control the tempo of the game.
“A lot of our game is based on transition, and if we can't get the rebound, we can't get out and go,” Wragge said. “We couldn't get anything going against Providence. We had to make sure we cranked up our defense against Villanova in order to get our offense going.”
Creighton limited the Wildcats to 39.7-percent shooting, more than six percentage points below average. The Bluejays also finished with a 34-32 rebounding edge against a team that had outrebounded 12 of its first 17 opponents.
“The difference against Villanova was boxing out and getting rebounds,” Manigat said. “Against Providence, we forced them to take the shots that we wanted to, but we couldn't get a defensive rebound.
“We concentrated on boxouts a little more and going and getting the basketball. That allowed our transition game to get going. We know if we can get stops and start running, we can be as good of a team as there is in the nation. We got the stops, we got the defensive rebounds and we ran.”
Of course, making shots also figured into Creighton's first victory over a ranked team in a true road game since 1978, and its first win over a top-five team at any site since 1970.
The Bluejays had shot 42.4 percent from 3-point range in winning 15 of their first 18 games. They shot 60 percent from beyond the arc against the Wildcats and 56.9 percent overall.
Against Providence, Creighton made a season-low four 3-point shots in 19 attempts (21.1 percent) while shooting 49.1 percent overall.
“Our looks against Providence were just as good as they were against Villanova,” Greg McDermott said. “We just made them against Villanova after missing them against Providence. We're the best 3-point shooting team in the country, but that doesn't mean we're going to shoot 43 percent every night.
“Sometimes you go 8 for 10 and sometimes you go 2 of 10. It all evens out in the end.”
The Creighton coach acknowledged that picking up the intensity on defense and on the boards was a key element in the rout of the Wildcats.
“It allowed us to do what we did offensively,” the coach said. “A lot of what happened offensively, especially early in the game, came in transition before their defense was set. That comes as a result of a defensive stop and a rebound.
“Without those, we wouldn't have been able to do the things offensively that we did.”
After Monday's game, McDermott called the performance “one of the more incredible things that I've been a part of as a coach.” Watching the game on videotape on Tuesday reinforced those feelings.
“It was fun to watch and it was fascinating to watch,” McDermott said. “Obviously, a game like that doesn't happen every day. That maybe was a once-in-a-lifetime game.”
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>> Video: Ethan Wragge discusses Monday's 3-point barrage: