Another day, another hero. As the season rolls to an indeterminant end, it appears the time has come for leading scorer Bryce Cotton to pay the toll for all the minutes he has played this season.
But that's OK. Cotton has gotten the team this far, and now it seems like his teammates are primed to help the Friars sprint through the finish line tape.
Friday night it was LaDontae Henton's turn. With Cotton, again, struggling with his shot (5-for-14 from the field), Henton put up a monster stat line of 26 points and 14 rebounds. Providence beat Seton Hall, 80-74, to procure their first berth in the Big East finals since 1994 (which they won).
Henton has always been one of head coach Ed Cooley's favorite players. He was Cooley's first recruit at Providence. Henton personifies the dirt dog attitude that Cooley wants to instill in his team. Fans have sometimes been frustrated with Henton's shot selection and decision-making, but his guts and guile have never been questioned. Friday night, Henton was diving for loose balls. No surprise there. But, he was also nailing clutch three-pointers every time Seton Hall would make a run.
Also coming up big was Tyler Harris. Harris hadn't hit a three-pointer in his previous four games, but found his comfort zone in the corner of the Madison Square Garden court and hit 3-of-4 three-pointers on his way to 17 points-- 14 of which came in the second half. It was the most points he had scored in a game since February 1.
So who will step up Saturday night when Providence faces off against Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays for the first championship in, what Cooley noted as, "the new Big East"? Will it be Kadeem Batts? Will Cotton find his legs again? Will Fortune make it rain again inside MSG?
Providence is hitting on all cylinders. A season of playing with a paper-thin bench has forged the Friars' starting five into a tough, cohesive group. Everyone knows their roles. They have developed a mental toughness from playing six overtimes games-- four of those going to double overtime.
This team has earned their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003-04. And they will be dangerous. They have several scoring options. They can score inside and out. They can rebound. They have learned how to win close games. And, very importantly, they hit their free throws.
There was a time (three days ago?) when I would have been satisfied to see Providence just make the NCAA tournament with the knowledge the team would be one-and-done once they got there. Now I am entertaining the thought they could win one or, maybe even, (gulp) two games once they get to The Dance.
No stage is too big for this team. Here is a word of caution to any and all Friars' opponents-- Be afraid. Be very afraid.