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Friars advance to Big East semifinals with 79-74 win over St. John's

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For anyone who thought that the Providence College Friars were a one-man team: Think again. With floor leader Bryce Cotton, the Friars' First Team All-Big East selection, playing what could arguably his worst game of the season (12 points, four assists; just one point at halftime), sophomore Josh Fortune came up huge to lead fourth-seeded Providence over No. 5 seed St. John's, 79-74, in a Big East Tournament quarterfinal match-up before 14,925 fans at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The entire Big East Tournament is being televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.

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It was, in fact, an improbable victory for the Friars.

Providence led by three at halftime. What was disconcerting, however, was the fact that Cotton, the Friars' floor general who led the team throughout the season in points and assists, went into the locker room at intermission with just one point after going 0-for-5 from the field.

The Tuscon, Ariz. native, who made 85 percent of his foul shots during the season, was just 1-for-4 from the charity stripe. The Friars desperately needed someone to pick up the slack, and on this afternoon, that person was Fortune. The 6-5 sophomore guard from Hampton, Va., led all scorers with 24 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field—including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc—and 4-for-5 from the foul line.

Cotton, meanwhile ended the game with 12 points, 9.4 below his team-leading average. What's more, 10 of the All-Big East guard's points came from the charity stripe. He was just 1-for-10 from the floor. After picking up his fourth foul early in the second half, Cotton sat on the pines for a good portion of the second stanza. He routinely puts in 40-minute games for the Friars.

Now that's a bad hair day.

After leading by just three at halftime, the Friars opened up a lead in the second half that topped out at 17 points with 6:24 left in regulation.

And that's when everything started to break bad for Providence.

Led by Orlando Sanchez and JaKarr Sampson, and throwing a frantic, Pitino-esque full-court press on the Friars, the Red Storm cut the lead to just one point, 59-68, with just over a minute remaining.

Time for a deep breath on the Providence bench.

They're a physical team,” said Carson Desrosiers, the 7-foot transfer from Wake Forest who put up an eight-point,10-rebound stat line in 24 minutes played. “They've got a lot of size, a lot of athleticism. I think we did a pretty good job on the boards today. I think that 's one of the reasons we won the game.”

Actually, the Friars did win the battle of the boards, but only by a 49-44 margin. But Desrosiers did come up with the defensive play of the day when he blocked a shot by JaKarr Sampson in the paint that would have given the Red Storm a 70-69 lead with 53 seconds remaining in regulation.

It's the type of play that doesn't show up in the box score, but that every team needs to be a winner.

And that's exactly what the Friars are, so far.

“That was a tournament game.” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley after picking up the first Big East postseason tournament win of his career.

Most experts believe that as a 4-5 game in an eight-team tournament, the winner almost certainly gets an NCAA bid,whereas the loser is probably headed to the NIT.

Not Cooley.

“I think St. John's is clearly an NCAA team,” continued Cooley, who may be the only person on the planet who thinks so. “When you look at the depth of our league, what's happened in this tournament clearly shows how strong our league is from top to bottom.”

The 4-5 match-up is also, in theory at least, the closest game in terms of competitiveness. And while Wednesday night's play-in round saw one six-point win (DePaul upsetting Georgetown) and another one-point game (Seton Hall over Butler), and another one-point win in the first game of the day on Thursday (Seton Hall upsetting No. 1 seed Villanova), anyone would be hard-pressed to find two teams more evenly matched than Providence and St. John's. Indeed, the two teams split the season series, with each team winning on the opponent's home court.

Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton each put up a double-double for the Friars, with Batts scoring 13 points and pulling down 12 rebounds, and Henton putting up a 16-point, 11-boards statline.

D'Angelo Harrison led St. John's in scoring, putting up a double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds), while Rysheed Jordan (17 points) and Sampson (15) also put up double digits for the Johnnies.

The Friars now move on to the Big East semifinals tomorrow night when they take on suddenly dangerous Seton Hall. While almost everyone will concede that Seton Hall did Providence a huge favor by bouncing Villanova, the No. 3-ranked team in the country, in the first quarterfinal, the Friars certainly will not be taking the Pirates lightly.

“We played them twice during the season,” said Fortune, Thursday's hero. “We know how they play and what they want to do or don't want to do. We have to go in there focused with the game plan and execute offense and defense.”

They had better, because guess what? A loss to the unranked Pirates, and the Friars will find themselves right back on the bubble. During the regular season, the two teams split their two-game series, including a double-overtime win by Seton Hall on New Year's Eve at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

So don't think this one's a given.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

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