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Creighton pulls away from Villanova in 79-59 Big East opener

The Wildcats’ shooting struggles persist as the Bluejays defeat Villanova to open conference play.

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NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Villanova Wildcats fell to the Creighton Bluejays on the road on Friday night, losing 79-59 to open Big East play.

Although Creighton held the lead for most of the game, Villanova kept things close with the Bluejays.

The Wildcats managed to cut their deficit down to two, when Eric Dixon made a second-chance basket to make it 56-54, with 8:38 remaining in the game.

Unfortunately for Villanova, that would be as close as it would get. The ‘Cats were cold on the floor, and Creighton responded with a 13-2 run to pull away. The Bluejays pushed their lead to 20 and coasted to the final buzzer with their game-sealing surge.

“Creighton played great tonight; we didn’t play that well,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I thought we struggled offensively. You got to give them credit defensively. When we had some tough offensive possessions, they got out in transition and hit some threes. That run in the first half made a big difference. We came out in the second half and made a little run but again some poor offensive possessions by us allowed them to get out in transition where they’re fast especially at this place, they’re really good, they played great tonight.”

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Villanova shot 4-of-23 (17.4%) as a team from long range for the entire game, including a 1-of-12 (8.3%) performance in the second half alone.

“I think they’re a really balanced team, they take advantages of where you make mistakes. In the first half we made some mistakes in transition defense that led to some of their threes. In the second half we didn’t play ball screens well, we didn’t defend the post well. They took advantage of that, they’re smart offensively and when you make mistakes, they take advantage of it.”

Nova missed their last 12 shots of the game and after Dixon’s follow up cut it to two with about eight and a half to play, they didn’t make another shot. Wright pointed out the ‘Cats trying to force it too often.

“We’re trying to do it on our own, not selfishly — just guys trying to (individually) get us going,” Wright said. “We’re losing our rhythm offensively. We’re going to have learn from this and try to get our offensive rhythm back.”

Collin Gillespie led the ‘Cats with 16 points but shot just 6-of-17 overall and 1-of-8 from deep.

Creighton’s 7-foot-1 center, Ryan Kalkbrenner used his 7-foot-4 wingspan to take away the paint and also contest shots on the perimeter when ‘Nova tried to switch him onto a guard.

At one point, Kalkbrenner blocked a 3-point attempt while being screened, it was one of his five blocks in the game. It wasn’t just Kalkbrenner’s size that troubled the ‘Cats. He has great foot speed and coordination for a 7-footer, while playing with great inclination on where to be in his defensive positioning.

“He’s super big inside the paint and a really good rim protector for those guys,” Gillespie said. “He seems like he’s always there, helping pretty much all the time. He’s always in good position and knows when to help his teammates.”

Dixon added on Kalkbrenner, “He’s a really good player, plays hard, plays really fast. He’s also a smart player, it makes him tough.”

Eric Dixon did finish with 15 points, a career and season-high and nine rebounds in what was his most active game this season offensively. He also took a season high 13 shots. While he only made five, he appeared to be Villanova’s most confident player and moved with purpose.

“He did a good job moving inside and outside,” Wright said of Dixon. “He did a good job defensively. We were pretty good when he was in there. We just tried to play a little faster later on but he did a good job.”

Jermaine Samuels had 11 points on 2-of-9 shooting and had seven boards and was the only other ‘Cat in double figures.

Although Villanova only had six turnovers, it wasn’t able to dictate the pace. Creighton had its way of setting the tone of the game and the Bluejays were able to put the ball exactly where they wanted it.

“We did a pretty good job of taking care of the ball, but we didn’t do a good job getting each other shots,” Wright said. “We only had four assists; it was a lot of contested shots which you have to give them credit for. Six turnovers are a positive, but the lack of assists really hurt us. We were getting to the rim in the second half and they put Kalkbrenner back in and took away the rim and gave us 3-point looks but we just didn’t make any.”

In somewhat of a bright spot, Bryan Antoine made his season debut and played seven minutes. Wright thought he was solid in his limited minutes.

“We’re going to have to bring him back gradually,” he said of Antoine. “He’s only practiced a few days, I thought he gave us good minutes. He’s got a lot of ground to make up here but it gives us some depth.”

For Creighton, four different Bluejays scored in double figures. Ryan Hawkins finished with a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double. Ryan Nembhard had 14 points, three boards and four assists. Alex O’Connell chipped in 12 points, while Trey Alexander had 10 points.

Creighton shot 22-of-34 from under the arc, leading to 42 points in the paint. This ability to get easier looks proved too much for Villanova’s defense. Creighton’s advantage in foot speed helped them overcome the Wildcats’ usually stingy switching defense.

Villanova will look to snap this two-game slide and grab its first Big East win of the year when they host Xavier on Tuesday night. Creighton will look to capitalize on a huge home win as they go to DePaul on Monday night.