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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — It was New Year's Eve, but it sure felt like March to Josh Hart and the rest of the top-ranked Villanova Wildcats.
The defending national champions overcame an early 10-point deficit, Hart's slow start and a frenzied crowd to defeat No. 10 Creighton 80-70 on Saturday.
"It's good to get in here, play Villanova basketball against a tough team and have something we can build on," Hart said. "We know we can get a lot better. In March we can say we played in a tough environment. We faced adversity and we overcame it."
Jalen Brunson scored a career-high 27 points, including 11 in a row as the Wildcats wiped out their early deficit, and Villanova (14-0, 2-0 Big East) extended its school-record winning streak to 20 games.
The game marked only the second time in Big East history that two unbeaten teams met in a conference game, and it lived up to the hype with nine lead changes and five ties before the Wildcats pulled away late.
Kris Jenkins added 21 points and Hart had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats.
Marcus Foster led the Bluejays (13-1, 1-1) with 22 points. Justin Patton had 18 points and eight rebounds.
"Certainly disappointed we lost, but a great learning experience for us," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "Villanova is terrific. We knew they we were terrific and knew it would take a great effort to win."
The Wildcats were the first defending national champion to visit Omaha since 1946, and the third-largest crowd (18,831) in the CenturyLink Center's 13-year history was there to greet them. The towel-waving fans filled the seats early and made the building as loud as it's ever been as the Bluejays ran onto the court. Creighton used that fuel to make its first five shots and build a quick 10-point lead.
"I'm happy this is my last time here," Hart said. "This environment is crazy, it's hectic. When they get on a run, you hear it. We'll be talking on the court and we can barely hear what we're saying. One time Coach called a play, I had no idea what he was calling. Kris was 5 feet away trying to tell me, and I was like, 'What are you saying?'"
After Isaiah Zierden's 3-pointer with 4:47 left tied it at 66, the Bluejays missed four straight shots before Maurice Watson Jr. snaked his way for a layup to cut the deficit to five with a minute left. The Wildcats made all six of their free throws in the last 36 seconds to finish off the win.
Brunson and Hart hit clutch shots to keep Villanova mostly in control the second half. Donte DiVincenzo's tear-drop shot put Villanova up 63-54 before Patton's two dunks started a 9-0 run that tied it with 7:41 to play. Creighton went cold after that, and Villanova ran off to its fifth straight win over the Bluejays.
"We knew we had to stick to what we were doing," Hart said, "and that's just being solid and playing Villanova basketball for 40 minutes. We know against the best teams it's going to take 40 minutes. This is a great team, one of the best in our league."
Villanova: The Wildcats showed the mettle of a champion in maybe the most challenging atmosphere in which they'll play this season.
Creighton: In a game with nine lead changes and five ties, the Bluejays went toe-to-toe with Villanova until the last 4 minutes and still look like a team capable of making a deep run in March.
Villanova remains a solid No. 1, and Creighton does not merit a demotion from No. 10 after giving the Wildcats all they wanted.
HE SAID IT
"It's a completely different crew, completely different team, and we're playing differently. But they have to deal with everyone else's impact from last season. They have to deal with everybody treating them like the No. 1 team, like former national champions, still talking about last year. It's part of the responsibility. It's a good challenge to have." Villanova coach Jay Wright, on how his players have handled expectations during a 14-0 start.
Villanova visits Butler on Wednesday.
Creighton visits St. John's on Wednesday.
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