PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Eric Dixon scored 18 of his career-high 31 points in the first half, Cam Whitmore added 17 and Villanova defeated No. 19 Creighton 79-67 on Saturday.
Dixon also set a career high with six 3-pointers for Villanova (15-14, 9-9 Big East), which has won five of six.
“My teammates kept finding me in spots that I’m comfortable in,” Dixon said.
Arthur Kaluma scored 19 points and Ryan Kalkbrenner had 18 for Creighton (18-11, 12-6). The Bluejays have lost three of four following an eight-game winning streak.
“We ran into a buzz saw today,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Villanova was able to turn our defense inside out with Dixon’s ability to stretch the floor.”
The Wildcats have been the standard bearer for the Big East since the conference’s realignment in 2013, but they took some lumps for much of this season without Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, who retired after last season. Now, first-year head coach Kyle Neptune has the Wildcats playing the kind of basketball that led them to seven of the last nine conference regular-season titles, five Big East Tournament titles over that span and national championships in 2016 and 2018.
Villanova again looks like a team that no one wants to play in March.
“We just had to grow as a team,” Neptune said. “Thank God our guys have continued to get better and better. Our goal is always to be the best team we can be by the end. Hopefully we can reach that goal.”
The Wildcats have been playing better since the return of Justin Moore from injury. The senior guard had eight points and eight assists in his ninth game back after tearing his Achilles tendon.
“You can see it coming as you watch them on film since Justin has returned,” McDermott said. “You can see growth every game. Frankly, I was afraid of this. Unfortunately, I was right.”
Dixon’s two free throws gave Villanova a 46-29 lead 2:57 into the second half to match the Wildcats’ biggest lead of the game. Creighton chipped away at the deficit and got within 52-45 with 12:37 remaining on Kalkbrenner’s two free throws.
But then Dixon heated up again, first hitting a 3 from the left baseline and then converting a traditional 3-point play on a drive and free throw to push the lead back to 58-45 with 11:18 to play.
Creighton couldn’t recover. Whitmore put an exclamation point on the victory with a driving, one-handed jam with 2:47 remaining.
Villanova improved to 5-4 since Moore returned to the lineup on Jan. 29 against Providence. The 6-foot-4 senior guard was projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in last spring’s NBA draft before tearing his right Achilles tendon in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament semifinal victory over Houston.
Like his team, Moore’s game has picked up lately. He is coming off his best performance, scoring 25 points while helping the Wildcats rally from a 13-point second-half deficit to win 64-63 at No. 16 Xavier on Tuesday.
HOME SWEET (OTHER) HOME
Villanova finished the season 3-1 at the Wells Fargo Center, the home court of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Wildcats’ secondary home floor. They won all three games here last season and are 62-37 all-time.
Creighton: With games remaining against league bottom dwellers DePaul and Georgetown, the Bluejays look like a lock for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. First, they’ll set their sights on the school’s first Big East Tournament title. Creighton has reached the championship game four times since joining the Big East in 2013 but have lost all four games, including in 2022 and 2017 to Villanova.
Villanova: The Wildcats likely will need a deep run in the Big East Tournament to have any shot at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Villanova is a middle-of-the-pack conference team this season but one that is getting hot at the right time.
Creighton: Hosts Georgetown on Wednesday.
Villanova: At Seton Hall on Tuesday.
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25