Marquette, like many others, burned by Doug McDermott

As he's done all year, Doug McDermott took over last night's game. (US Presswire)

As he’s done all year, Doug McDermott took over last night’s game.

For a split second Wednesday night in Milwaukee, all Buzz Williams could do was marvel.

His Marquette Golden Eagles had used a 9-3 run to move within five of Creighton inside 8 minutes to play. And with the shot clock winding down on a rare possession in which the Golden Eagles defended well, Creighton’s senior point guard Jahenns Manigat drove the baseline and kicked the ball out to Doug McDermott, who drained a 24-foot 3-pointer with Jamil Wilson’s hand in his face.

And as the ball went through the net, Williams spun around, kicked out his leg and screamed, “Wow!” He quickly collected himself, turned back to the court and shouted out instruction for the Golden Eagles’ next play, but the damage had already been done. That shot began a 12-3 run that essentially put Creighton’s 85-70 victory out of reach, McDermott again playing hero for the 11th-ranked Bluejays.

Such was the night for the Golden Eagles, who were burned play after play by arguably the nation’s best player, who scored 25 points and passed Tyler Hansbrough and Elvin Hayes to move into 11th place on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list in the win.

“Player of the Year,” Williams responded when asked where he ranks McDermott among the country’s best players. Marquette’s head coach then backtracked, saying he shies away from national discussions and debates because he’s too focused on his own team, so he usually can’t give an accurate opinion.

“But if you shoot 75 percent from the field (9-for-12) and score 25 points and have eight rebounds,” Williams added, “that’s impressive.”

Marquette allowed the Bluejays to shoot 63 percent and make 12 3-pointers, but McDermott’s evening was nothing new to opposing defenses. The National Player of the Year frontrunner is averaging 31.0 points on 59 percent shooting over his last six games, hasn’t scored fewer than 25 in any of them and has led his team to the top of the Big East standings, poised for a regular season title in the program’s first year in the Big East.

And like all players who will be named to the All-American team, McDermott affected the game in more ways than just his scoring. He attempted just four shots in the first half — he came in averaging 22 attempts over his last five games — feeling out the Marquette defense, which constantly doubled him, threw three or four different defenders on him and tried as best they could to slow down the nation’s best scorer.

But that didn’t slow down the Bluejays in the slightest. McDermott still received touches on most possessions, usually while posting up at the free throw line against the likes of Jamil Wilson, Derrick Wilson, Jake Thomas or Deonte Burton. And the heady player he is, McDermott made the right decision more times than not, finding outlets on the perimeter when double-teamed.

That resulted in seven made 3-pointers for the Bluejays in the first half, including four from forward Ethan Wragge. McDermott assisted on a pair of baskets and was in the mix in some form on just about every possession. Williams admitted it was a “pick your poison” technique, either attempting to put a single defender on McDermott or helping on him, leaving the country’s best 3-point shooting team open on the perimeter.

Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father, admitted Marquette denied McDermott looks inside in the first half better than any opponent has all year. That, however, freed up the other four players on the court.

“By doing that, a guy like Ethan Wragge’s going to get open looks, so when they’re on the same side of the floor you have a choice. Either you’re a little looser on Wragge and make Doug’s catch tougher, and if you do that Ethan’s probably going to get a look.

“A lot of what we do goes through Doug’s hands, and any coach in the country – even if you’re not his dad – would make sure he gets plenty of touches.”

That strategy worked well for the Bluejays offense, though they only led by seven at the break. And knowing that 3-point percentage was bound to average out, Greg McDermott switched tactics in the second half.

Rather than attempting to post up smaller defenders while seeing constant double teams as soon as he touched the ball deep enough, Creighton put McDermott on the move. When he wasn’t setting screens, it was a cut to the basket, a flare out of a screen or a pick and roll to the basket.

Derrick Wilson, who was pegged with fronting McDermott in the first half, said all that constant moving made finding a way to slow him down much more difficult.

“He’s constantly moving. He’s the most active player, probably, in NCAA basketball, and that’s why he gets so many shots. If he doesn’t get the ball in the post he’s setting screens, he’s popping, he’s slipping. He’s constantly moving, and that’s hard to guard,” Wilson said. “All the movements are really hard to guard, especially when a guy that size can shoot and play in size.”

The player asked to deal with those movements was Jamil Wilson, and the results were less than stellar. In a tightly officiated game — there were 31 personal fouls called after halftime — Wilson committed two fouls on McDermott in a 10-second span. Two minutes later he committed a third foul, and Marquette went into the bonus at the 13:03 mark of the second half (For what it’s worth, Marquette was in the bonus exactly 3 minutes later).

“In the second half we talked about deeper posts on their guards, and the way the game was called tonight — there was a lot of fouls called with physical play in the post, so we told him to go down there and get in a fight,” Doug McDermott said.

Though McDermott went to the charity stripe just four times in the second half, it changed the way Marquette defended him, and the activity allowed him to get in the flow of the game. He shot 6-for-8 in the second half on layups, jumpers, transition 3-pointers and the deadly trey that had Williams in awe late in the half. He extended Creighton’s lead midway through the half with 11 straight points.

“He’s in constant movement. Knows how to get fouled, knows how to force a switch, is very aware of how teams are guarding him and how that impacts the other four guys on his team,” Williams said. “And whether he gets a touch, the pressure he causes at times leads to practice shots for kids on his team.”

He added another assist in the second half, and not coincidentally  the Bluejays shot 5-for-10 from beyond the arc after halftime to secure their third straight victory, and seventh in the last eight games.

It was yet another remarkable performance for one of college basketball’s all-time greats. If that seems superfluous, consider that McDermott has averaged 21.2 points per game for his career, will earn his third straight All-American nod this season and is shooting 55 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc in four seasons.

That fourth season almost didn’t happen. McDermott was a projected first round pick in last year’s draft, but made the decision to play one final season under his father and try for one last March run with a team pegged to be among the nation’s best in a brand new conference.

Along the way, he has Creighton ranked 11th in the country, won 22 games in 26 tries and is on pace to become the 8th player all-time to tally 3,000 career points (he’s at 2,888 after tonight). Last week he passed Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list, something even his father said was “hard to fathom.”

“He made the decision to come back, which was a difficult decision for him. But when he made that decision it was like a bonus year for his dad, an opportunity to coach him one more time,” Greg McDermott said. “I told him when he made that decision, ‘If you’re going to come back, No. 1, we need to get better if you’re going to come back, and No. 2, you have to enjoy it.’ And as I told him that he needed to enjoy it, he reminded me that I needed to enjoy it also.”

Marquette wasn’t perfect Wednesday night, and despite their best efforts it wasn’t enough to pull off a victory it needed to enter the bubble conversation. But as a host of teams have experienced this season, sometimes even a great effort isn’t enough to get past the nation’s best player. It certainly was the case Wednesday night.

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