This was the best the Big East has to offer this year.
Two of its three guaranteed NCAA Tournament teams, its two best chances at long runs now that Villanova will be without tri-conference player of the year Collin Gillespie for the rest of the season.
The showdown lived up to the hype, even if the Big East Tournament semifinal between second-seeded Creighton and third-seeded Connecticut was played at the speed of the BQE at rush hour.
Neither team led by more than five points in the second half. The result wasn’t decided until the final seconds. Ultimately, the Bluejays prevailed, 59-56, with an assist from the Garden court.
UConn point guard R.J. Cole’s hard fall, which left blood gushing from above his left eye and knocked him out for the final 5:07, produced an opening. Creighton, trailing by three at the time, scored the game’s next seven points to take command.
“R.J. is a leader — the leader — he’s our point guard,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said. “Obviously it hurt not having him not [guarding Marcus] Zegarowski. It hurt not having him down the stretch of that game to try to execute some things. We were a little unsettled without him.”
The Bluejays still had to survive the last possession. But James Bouknight and Tyler Polley missed potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final seconds and Creighton advanced to the title game to face No. 8 Georgetown Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. The Bluejays will go for their first conference tournament title in their third try.
Known for its offense, Creighton (20-7) won with defense and rebounding. The Bluejays hounded Bouknight, a projected lottery pick, into a 4-for-14, 14-point night and hammered UConn (15-7) on the glass, 50-33.
The usually lights-out shooting Bluejays made just 5-of-18 3-point attempts and won despite playing the game at the Huskies’ preferred slower pace.
“For us to out-rebound a UConn team by 17 I think speaks to the grit and toughness that I have in that locker room,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
Damien Jefferson led Creighton with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Zegarowski had 13.
Bouknight seemed to get on track late in the second half, with a jumper and a three-point play. But with a five-point lead, he forced a shot and missed the front end of a 1-and-1, leaving an opening for Creighton. The Bluejays took advantage, as Jefferson sank a 3-pointer to make it 53-53 with 3:55 left.
During that stretch, Connecticut lost Cole. UConn stalled without him and Creighton built a four-point lead on the strength of a 9-0 run. The Huskies left the Garden, in their first Big East Tournament since returning to the league, short of reaching Saturday night. But the NCAA Tournament still awaits them.
“I think we wanted it so bad that we might have gotten in our own way,” Hurley said. “And then again you lose your point guard. They lose Zegarowski for the last four, five minutes, I’m not sure how it looks for them.”