Regardless of Villanova’s seed or record, eliminating the Wildcats from the Big East Tournament will always be accomplishment to Creighton coach Greg McDermott.
Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 21 points, Ryan Nembhard added 17 and No. 24 Creighton defeated Villanova 87-74 Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in a rematch of last season’s tournament championship game.
“This same team just dominated us a couple weeks ago in Philadelphia,” McDermott said. “Anytime we can beat Villanova it’s a great win for our program because of the respect that we had when Coach (Jay) Wright was there and we continue to have with (coach) Kyle (Neptune).”
The third-seeded Bluejays (21-11) advanced to the semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden to face second-seeded and 15th-ranked Xavier. The top four seeds swept the quarterfinals.
Nembhard made three of Creighton’s 12 3-pointers, including one from the corner off an offensive rebound that put the Bluejays up 18 with 12:54 left in the second half.
Last season’s Big East freshman of the year missed the conference and NCAA tournaments in 2022 because of wrist injury.
“Kind of feels like a stage when you get out there when the lights hit,” he said about playing in the Garden. “It’s great being out there.”
Eric Dixon’s 3 for sixth-seeded Villanova (17-16) cut lead to 65-56 with 4:43 left and perked up the Wildcats fans at the Garden after a Creighton had dominated the second half.
But Arthur Kaluma responded with a 3 after the Bluejays broke Nova’s press to bump the lead back to 12 on the next possession. Kaluma finished with 18 points on 5-of-8 shooting
Kalkbrenner competed a three-point play with 3:26 left to make it 73-61 and Creighton cruised from there.
Villanova has been the beast of the new Big East, going 18-4 and winning five tournament titles since the conference dropped football and reconfigured.
Against Creighton, Villanova was playing as the lower seed in a Big East Tournament game for the first time since 2013 against Louisville.
“There’s a lot of pressure to win the first game in the tournament because we have a lot of people that showed up and traveled out here from Omaha, and they’re not very happy if they have to go home tomorrow,” McDermott said “There’s a little bit of added pressure to get to that semifinal game and make sure they’re here for a weekend.”
The Wildcats came in having won seven of nine to salvage their first season after Wright surprisingly stepped down.
In need of a championship run in New York to extend their NCAA Tournament streak to 10 appearances, the Wildcats couldn’t match up with the 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner on the defensive end (9 for 12 from the field) and had a hard time finishing at the rim with him lurking in the paint.
“He’s obviously a great player,” Neptune said. “They made a point to go to him often. But you look at the first half, I thought defensively it actually wasn’t that bad. I thought they got out in transition a little bit too much.”
Dixon scored 20 points to lead the Wildcats.
The Bluejays took a 32-23 lead at half behind Kalbrenner’s 10 points and a personal nine-point run from Trey Alexander, who made three consecutive 3s.
Creighton has played in the last two Big East finals and four overall since joining the conference in 2014 — but the Bluejays have yet to win a title.