OMAHA, Neb. -- By the final five minutes on Sunday, Villanova reached its breaking point.
The sixth-ranked Wildcats were beaten. Thoroughly.
They began to leave holes in the center of the lane for Creighton’s small guards to reach the rim. Villanova’s top scorer, James Bell, had fouled out with 8:45 to play.
After 75 minutes of basketball in two games against Big East newcomer Creighton -- 27 days and 1,200 miles apart -- coach Jay Wright’s club was done.
“We were really looking forward to this,” Wright said after Creighton torched Villanova 101-80 on Sunday night. “We felt we didn’t play our game at home against them. But now when you play this game, we see, you know what, this is what we are against Creighton.
“We’ve done it twice in a row.”
Before Sunday, Villanova had lost this season only at No. 1 Syracuse and at home to these Bluejays, 96-68 on Jan. 20 in a seemingly flukish performance.
Sunday was no fluke. No. 18 Creighton dismantled the Wildcats at CenturyLink Center before a high-energy crowd of 18,797 hungry to see the Bluejays take over first place in the Big East against the highest-ranked team to visit Omaha since 1983.
They got it all and more. And somehow, despite 39 points from the player of the year frontrunner, Doug McDermott wasn’t the whole story. McDermott scored the first 11 points for Creighton. He buried 3-pointers from near the top of the key early in Creighton’s first two possessions.
He passed Larry Bird for 13th place on the all-time NCAA Division I scoring list.
“I think he’s as good a [college] basketball player as I’ve ever seen,” Wright said.
Yeah, McDermott is pretty good.
Creighton’s first home win in 41 years over a top-10 team resonated most with coach Greg McDermott, though, for how the Bluejays’ bench responded.
The reserves contributed 39 points for Creighton, equal to Doug McDermott. The symbolism should not go unnoticed.
“I didn’t think we could play much better than we played at Villanova,” Greg McDermott said, “but I’m not sure we didn’t play better today. We didn’t have the crazy shooting night, but the other parts of the game were really good.”
Doug McDermott took a three-minute break, too. He scored just five of Creighton’s next 19 points. Freshman Isaiah Zierden scored six of his career-best 13 in that span. Austin Chatman, Devin Brooks and Will Artino added buckets.
The Creighton coach said he hoped just to stay even with three of his starters on the bench.
A fourth starter, sharpshooter Ethan Wragge, who slayed Villanova with nine 3-pointers in January, did not attempt a shot in the first half. But with 2½ minutes to play before the break, when McDermott connected on a layup, Creighton went up by 11.
The Bluejays led by 13 at halftime -- same as in Philadelphia.
“We were ready when our number was called,” Zierden said. “We tried to pick up the intensity, tried to come in and make a little bit of a difference.”
Zierden’s father, Don Zierden, an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, watched Sunday from the arena floor. Away from work for the NBA All-Star break, he saw his son run the Creighton offense with the efficiency of a veteran.
He saw Isaiah, if for only a few minutes, pick up where Doug McDermott left off. And that’s saying something. Just ask Wright, who described McDermott as the best post player and the best perimeter player the Wildcats have faced this year.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Wright said.
McDermott is rewriting Creighton’s history. He’s defining the new normal as the Bluejays transition from the Missouri Valley Conference without a sign of hesitance.
“He’s who we look to,” said Isaiah Zierden, lightly recruited out of St. Louis Park, Minn. “He’s our leader. Him getting off to a great start and getting us fired up, it says to us, ‘All right, we can get some confidence.’ If our leader’s ready to go, we can follow him.”
McDermott said he lives for games like the Bluejays played on Sunday.
“These are the best, especially playing against a top-10 team here in Omaha,” he said. “I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d see this day.”
They’ll see it again in the Big East. In the stands on Sunday sat Ronnie Harrell, a recent Creighton signee out of Denver ranked No. 71 in the 2014 ESPN 100. He picked the Jays over scholarship offers from Big 12 and Big Ten schools.
Just as Wright said about the Wildcats, this is reality. This is Creighton. Get used to it.