For many long-time Providence fans, it was like old times last night. The Friars, the No. 4 seed in the Big East Tournament, held the lead for virtually the whole game and stopped the No. 2 Creighton Bluejays, 65-58, before 15,290 fans at Madison Square Garden and a national television audience on Fox Sports 1 on Saturday night.
It was PC's second Big East Tournament championship in the illustrious history of the event, and its first since 2004.
Bryce Cotton, who had a couple of off games prior to last night, came through when the lights were shining brightest, leading the Friars with 23 points, while junior forward LaDontae Henton hauled down 13 boards.
Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Big East's leading scorer and a sure-fire first-team All-American, led all scorers with 27 points.
Cotton, who finished second to McDermott in the conference scoring, was the scoring star in the championship game and he was selected the tournament MVP. The Tuscon, Ariz., native came to Providence four years ago without a single scholarship offer from any other program in the nation.
Today, his basketball future seems limitless.
“We got off to a good run in the first half,” said Cotton, a unanimous First Team All-Big East selection. “We had a great pep talk going into the locker room. And we just told each other, we're 20 minutes away from something we've dreamed up for a long time. That was enough motivation to put a little pep in our step.”
Naysayers predicted the decline, and even the eventual end, to this, perhaps the most electric postseason conference championship in basketball history—one that has featured a bevy of all-time stars including Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullen, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Billy Donovan, Alonzo Mourning, Rip Hamilton, Walter Berry and Carmelo Anthony, and one that has featured just coaching luminaries as Jim Boeheim, Lou Carneseca, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Rick Barnes and Rollie Massamino.
Well, if last night was any indication, that ain't gonna happen.
The Friars held a nine-point lead at intermission, 26-17, and held by as much as 12-points three times in the second half. But anyone who knows this conference had no realistic expectation that either of these teams, who had split the season series between them—each winning on its own home court—was going to run and hide.
“They had too many possessions in the game at Creighton,” explained Friars' head coach Ed Cooley, himself a Providence native, referring to the Friars' reguar season-ending 88-73 loss to the Bluejays in Omaha. “That was a buzz saw we ran into. So we had to come up with a different strategic plan.”
Indeed, the Friars' smothering zone defense held the Bluejays scoreless for a five-minute stretch midway through the first half giving Providence a 17-11 advantage with 5:51 remaining until intermission. At halftime, Providence led 26-17. This was a season-low for the. Bluejays, who . averaged 80 points per game during the regular season. The tight PC zone had Creighton struggling mightily from the field in the first half. The Bluejays shot just 34.8 percent, including an abysmal 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) performance from beyond the three-point arc.
Perhaps the key statistic of the game: The Friars were 9-for-11 from the foul line in the first half, while the Bluejays did not take a single shot—not a one—from the charity stripe.
“Our game plan today was to make sure we got to the foul line and got to the rim, and we wanted to play defense with the ball,” continued Cooley. “It's almost like a football team that runs the ball to make sure that we dictated tempo.
The Friars last 12-point lead came after Kadeem Batts hit a jumper with 12:47 left in regulation. That gave the Friars a 45-33 lead, but the Bluejays rallied and closed the PC lead to just two—58-58—when McDermott, the Big East's Player of the Year, banged in his fifth trey of the game with just 1:18 remaining.
But the Friars displayed ice in their veins down the stretch, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line of the final 2:47 of the contest.
“Bryce Cotton was Superman in the second half,” explained Cooley,. “LaDontae [Henton] was the man again. We had timely free throws. Being the best free-throw shooting team in the country came into play today, especially down the stretch. And I really thought we showed a lot of poise.”
So now all this nonsensical bubble talk is over, as the Friars, 23-11, await to find out where they are seeded in the NCAA Tournament, in which they have not played in a decade.
“If somebody asks me about the bubble, I'm going to yell at you,” joked Cooley during the post-game press conference. “That bubble was popped probably a couple of games ago because of the league that we play in. I said it from the beginning, this conference will have four, five, or six teams in [the NCAA Tournament]. Today showed the strength of our league. You just never know from top to bottom. It is so, so competitive night in and night out.
“And let's not forget to give Creighton it's due.”
Indeed, the Bluejays, made a quantum leap from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East, and finished second to Villanova in the regular season. Despite the loss on Saturday, they are expected to garner a strong seed—perhaps as high as a No. 3—when NCAA selections are announced.
“I think there was a whole city (i.e., New York) that didn't know a lot about Creighton, that knows a lot about Creighton now,” said Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, Doug's father.
Selection Sunday will air today at 6 p.m. on CBS.