OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — This wasn't the year anyone, including Creighton's coaches and players, would have expected a Big East championship banner hung at CHI Health Center.
They were picked seventh in the conference, and they lost two projected starters to injuries before the season opener.
Yet there the No. 11 Bluejays were Saturday, the players mobbed by court-storming students after a 77-60 victory over No. 8 Seton Hall. Moments later, the banner was unfurled from the rafters on the north end of the arena.
“Did we think it was possible? We knew it was going to be hard. Did we know the league was going to be this good? Probably not at that time,” coach Greg McDermott said. “So to be sitting in this situation is incredible. When a group of people come together and they believe in each other and they have each other's back, and when they don't care who gets the credit, there are a lot of things that are possible.”
Marcus Zegarowski made all five of his 3-pointers and finished with 23 points as the Bluejays (24-7, 13-5) claimed all or part of their first conference title since winning the Missouri Valley outright in 2012-13. They joined the Big East the next season.
Creighton, Seton Hall and Villanova all went 13-5 in the conference. The Bluejays have won 11 of their last 13 games and, because they swept the season series against the Pirates, will be the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament in New York City next week.
The Bluejays finished the game on a 21-6 run, with the sellout crowd of more than 18,000 growing louder as the clock wound down.
“That was a game for the ages against a very good opponent,” McDermott said.
Seeing the court storming and championship banner left Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard feeling a bit blue for his players.
“I think my biggest emotion is the fact that those 13 kids in the locker room didn’t get to do the same thing,” Willard said. “Nothing’s going to take away from the accomplishment that we won a regular-season championship, too. They’re all down and disappointed and feeling down, which is normal, but at the same time you have a court storming and hanging a banner.”
Seton Hall (21-9) has been in first place or tied for first the entire season but lost its last two games and will be the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Villanova, which beat Georgetown on Saturday, is the No. 2 seed.
Denzel Mahoney came off the bench to score 16 points for the Bluejays, and Ty-Shon Alexander had 15 points along with playing a superb defensive game against Seton Hall star Myles Powell.
Powell and Quincy McKnight each scored 15 points for the Pirates and Jared Rhoden added 12 as the Pirates slowed the pace against the Big East's highest-scoring team.
“They slowed the ball up the court, and that actually made us happy,” Alexander said. “That let us catch our breath before we went on offense.”
Billed by local media as the biggest home game in Creighton program history, the energy in the building was palpable. Alexander got the crowd on its feet right away, stealing the ball from Powell on the opening possession and converting a fast-break pass from Damien Jefferson into an easy layin. Then, after Powell appeared to shed Alexander on a ball screen, Alexander caught him from behind to block his layup try.
There were 16 lead changes and seven ties. The Bluejays began taking control after Mitch Ballock made consecutive 3s and Zegarowski drove the length of the court and snaked his way through the lane for a finger-roll layin to break a 50-all tie.
“We missed a couple around the rim, and they’re just excellent in this building," Willard said. “We let Ballock get two 3s back-to-back and whenever he gets going, this team feeds off it. That kind of changed the whole momentum of the game.”
Seton Hall: The Pirates lost back-to-back games for only the second time this season, and Powell, averaging 27 points in road games, was never able to take control offensively. They were coming off a 79-77 loss to Villanova. Willard said his players' confidence remains high.
“They showed me everything they needed to show me,” he said. “After that heartbreaking loss Wednesday, they could have come out and laid an egg, and they came out and battled for 39 minutes.”
Creighton: The Bluejays ride momentum into the conference tournament after finishing 17-1 at home and improving to 6-2 against Top 25 opponents.
Tension spilled over when Jefferson and Sandro Mamukelashvili were chest to chest in the final 2 minutes. Mamukelashvili tried to shove Jefferson, McDermott sprinted across the bench to calm matters and each player was assessed a technical foul. Earlier, Creighton's Kelvin Jones was called for a flagrant-1 foul for a hook-and-hold when he and Romaro Gill locked arms under the basket and spun as if they were square dancing.
Wins over Georgetown and Seton Hall should propel Creighton into the top 10 next week. Consecutive losses will drop Seton Hall a few spots.
Seton Hall plays Xavier or Marquette in the Big East Tournament on Thursday.
Creighton plays Georgetown or St. John's in the Big East Tournament on Thursday.
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