OMAHA, Neb. -- Creighton senior Maurice Watson, the point guard from Philadelphia whose aggressive nature exemplified the Bluejays’ play during a 13-0 start, grabbed a loose ball under the Villanova basket late in the first half Saturday and raced to find 7-footer Justin Patton for an uncontested dunk in transition.
As Watson turned to sprint away, he passed Villanova coach Jay Wright on the sideline. Watson, with his team surging, pumped his arms toward the ground and screamed, mouth agape in excitement as waves of sound reverberated off the walls at CenturyLink Center Omaha.
Wright never noticed. Or, if he did, there was no reaction. He only called timeout and allowed the Wildcats to regroup before Kris Jenkins buried a 3-pointer that gave Villanova a one-point lead with four seconds left in the first half.
Top-ranked Villanova upped the defensive intensity after halftime en route to a cold-blooded 80-70 victory in front of 18,831, the third-largest crowd to attend a game here, spoiling plans in Omaha for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
That’s Villanova, which has won a program-record 20 straight games, including six of the highest significance in March and April.
The Wildcats (14-0, 2-0 Big East) finished 2016 with 38 wins in 41 games. They’re 111-13 since the start of 2013-14, after calmly overcoming a 10-point first-half deficit at 10th-ranked Creighton (13-1, 1-1) in the sport’s second matchup in the past 30 seasons of two teams with records of 13-0 or better.
“There’s a lot of guys there who just won a national championship,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said of the Wildcats. “They don’t get shook, and they don’t get rattled. If you’re not going to get rattled at the way that crowd was at 24-14, you’re not going to get rattled. Because they won’t play in a tougher environment all year.”
The question now: When and how will Villanova lose? Or will it?
The Wildcats got a career-best 27 points Saturday from sophomore guard Jalen Brunson, 21 from Jenkins and a quiet 18 from player of the year candidate Josh Hart, whose contributions increased after Creighton used a 9-0 run to lock the score at 63 with 7:40 to play.
“He really, really stepped up as a leader,” Brunson said of Hart, who added a team-high 10 rebounds.
The game marked Hart’s 13th career double-double, all Villanova victories. Hart committed six turnovers, including four in the first half. Despite his frustrations, the 6-foot-5 senior missed just four shots.
“When you’re in that position, everybody wants you to play like the player of the year,” Wright said. “He’s so intelligent. He’s so humble. He just wants his team to win. That’s really the value of a great leader.”
Hart said he worked to not overthink situations, to not play too aggressively.
“We knew we just had to stick with doing what we were doing, and that’s just being solid, playing Villanova basketball 40 minutes,” Hart said. “We know against the best teams, it’s going to take 40 minutes. This is a great team.”
The same description -- magnified, in fact -- applies to Villanova, which visits No. 13 Butler on Wednesday. In the Wildcats' stiffest tests so far this season, they responded at Purdue, against Notre Dame on a neutral court and at Creighton with the poise of a team that has tasted postseason success.
This is not that team, though, Wright said.
“It’s completely different,” the coach said. “It’s a completely different crew, a completely different team. We’re playing differently, but they have to deal with everyone else’s impact from last season. They have to deal with everybody treating them like the No. 1 team, still talking about last year. It’s part of the responsibility. It’s a good challenge to have.”
The Wildcats of 2016 answered every challenge. At the dawn of another year, the squad looks equally equipped.