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Xavier erases 17-point deficit at Creighton

Musketeers sweep Bluejays with 74-64 victory

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Creighton Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Big East fans would be forgiven for wanting to change the channel at halftime of Xavier at Creighton this Saturday. The Bluejays led 36-19, and the game seemed all but over. KenPom gave the Musketeers only a 6.4% chance of winning.

Twenty minutes later, the scoreboard at CHI Health Center Omaha read Xavier 74, Creighton 64.

Does the first half even matter when Xavier plays? They’ve trailed at the break in six consecutive games, all against Big East teams in Quadrant 1 or 2 in the NET. They own a 3-3 record over that stretch.

“The most overrated thing in sports is the halftime score,” said Xavier coach Travis Steele following the win. “Nobody remembers, you know, if you were winning at halftime. It’s why you play 40 minutes.”

Xavier is 5-3 this season when down at halftime. Four of the five wins were of the Quadrant 1 or 2 variety. Quality teams that can beat Xavier over the first twenty minutes still win the game less than half of the time.

At Creighton on Saturday, the Musketeers erased a bigger halftime deficit than they had all season in barely seven minutes. Jack Nunge, starting for just the third time this season, knocked down two triples. Scruggs added a 3-pointer of his own, and the deficit was down to eight.

Then, they began to work the ball into the paint. Zach Freemantle hit a jumper from the block. Scruggs drove to the basket for a layup, then followed that up by tipping in his own miss. Nunge hit a turnaround hook shot in the paint. All tied at 36.

Seconds later, Scruggs forced a turnover from Creighton’s Keyshawn Feazell. He found Colby Jones up the court, who dropped the ball off to Freemantle. All alone behind the defense, Freemantle slammed it home. The Musketeers had their first lead since it was 2-0 thanks to a 19-0 run to open the half.

Xavier held Creighton scoreless for the first seven and a half minutes of the second half, when Ryan Kalkbrenner hit two free throws. The Bluejays didn’t get their first field goal of the period until Trey Alexander’s layup with 8:56 left in the game. By that point, the Musketeers had scored 29 of the game’s last 31 points, turning a 17-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

“You have to embrace those valleys, and you gotta work your way out of them.” Travis Steele was talking about guard Nate Johnson when he said this, but the lesson applies to the whole team. While the Musketeers have made a habit of digging themselves a hole, they’ve also gotten very good at building their way back out. Johnson, who was 1-15 from three over his last three games, broke the slump by hitting 5-7 from deep against Creighton. Four of those five came in the second half to help secure the victory.

Creighton’s freshman guard Ryan Nembhard set a new career high in the defeat. He scored 23 points on 9-19 shooting. Alex O’Connell and Ryan Kalkbrenner, with 13 and 11 points respectively, scored in double-figures for the Bluejays as well.

The loss was Creighton’s second in a row, and it dropped them to 4-4 in Big East play. They’ll look to turn things around next week as they travel east to play at UConn on Tuesday and Seton Hall on Friday.

Xavier’s win ended a two-game skid and completed a season sweep over the Bluejays. They return home for back-to-back home games next week against two opponents they have already beaten on the road. The Musketeers host Butler on Wednesday and DePaul on Saturday.