‘NOVA EDGES PROVIDENCE ON LATE FREE THROWS TO REACH FIRST BIG EAST FINAL IN 18 YEARS
NEW YORK — Something had to give in the first Big East tournament semifinal matchup at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
Would it be the best team or the defending champs?
Either the overwhelming tournament favorites, the top-seeded and fourth-ranked Villanova Wildcats, would reach the finals, or the fourth-seeded, reigning Big East tournament champion Providence Friars would return to that same destination with a chance to defend the title they won as the same seed last year.
It’s just too bad that with a spot in the finals on the line, what was given to the Wildcats (31-2, 18-2 Big East) was handed to them via a questionable call rather than letting the players decide it.
Junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono only scored six points, but none were bigger than the two he got on a pair of game-winning free throws with 3.1 seconds left — following very minimal contact from freshman forward Ben Bentil — to give Villanova a hard-fought (and referee-aided) 63-61 victory.
It’s the Wildcats’ the first trip to the Big East finals since 1997 and their first under head coach Jay Wright, who despite having a team that could end up with a one seed in the NCAA tournament next week, said the Big East tournament was his favorite.
“I’m thrilled,” Wright said afterwards. “I love this tournament. I like this tournament better than any other tournament. I just love being in New York, love being in the Garden. I know all of our alumni do. I’m thrilled. I’m really happy for these guys.”
Wright is also happy that his team stuck around much longer this year after losing by a point as the top seed to 8th-seeded Seton Hall in last year’s Big East tournament.
That experience helped Villanova, which reached the semifinals this year by easily disposing of ninth-seeded Marquette by 25 points on Thursday.
“It’s really that these guys, they’re coming into these games having been in lots of big games, having been the top of the league all year,” Wright said. “Everywhere we went on the road [this season], it was the biggest game, it’s a sellout, everybody’s out to get us, and they’ve been through all that. And they already failed last year.
“I heard Ryan Arch say, ‘Hey, we already came up here and lost in the first round, and everybody hated us.’ We already did that. We’re not afraid of that. We lived through it. So the fact they’ve been through all of this together is a great characteristic they have going into every game.”
Having sophomore guard Josh Hart provide a spark off the bench, and junior forward Daniel Ochefu up front didn’t hurt either.
Hart led the Wildcats with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting and Ochefu posted a double-double with 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Senior guard Darrun Hilliard II added 12 points and got Villanova off to a good start.
After senior forward LaDontae Henton (who had nine points after scoring a game-high 20 to help oust hometown favorite St. John’s on Thursday) started the game with a 3-pointer, Hilliard answered with a trey of his own, followed by a layup and jumper, to stake Villanova to a 7-3 lead less than three minutes in.
Brooklyn, N.Y. product, senior forward JayVaughn Pinkston (two points), Ochefu and Hart (who led the Wildcats with 20 points in their quarterfinal win) each scored two points to give Villanova a 13-5 cushion.
A 3-pointer by sophomore guard Kris Dunn (who led the Friars with 22 points after making four treys against St. John’s) and a 3-point play from Henton bookended a 10-3 run that brought Providence within 16-15 with just under nine minutes to go in the opening half.
However, Ochefu scored the next four points and Hart had eight (on a pair of 3s and a layup) to finish a 15-5 spurt which extended the Wildcats’ advantage to 31-20 with less than four minutes left before halftime.
The Friars scored the next three points at the line, and with reserve freshman guard Jalen Lindsey (nine points) scoring his first points on a 3-pointer, and Dunn getting a layup (to become his team’s only scorer in double figures in the half), Providence ended the half on an 8-2 run, to trim Villanova’s lead to 33-28.
Arcidiacono, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer this season, had two fouls and didn’t take a shot in the first half while playing only 10 minutes. But he began the second half with a 3-pointer to push Villanova’s lead to eight points.
Dunn answered that bucket with a jumper, and after starting just 1-for-6 from the floor, Bentil drained a 3-pointer to draw the Friars within 36-33.
Following an Arcidiacono steal, Hart made a terrific bounce pass to set up Ochefu for a dunk before junior guard Dylan Ennis (two points, four assists) scored his first points on a layup.
After that, a Hart jumper, a 3-pointer by reserve sophomore forward Kris Jenkins (five points) and one of two free throws from Hart capped an 11-1 run that pushed the Wildcats’ lead to a game-high margin of 47-34 with 13:40 remaining.
Despite starting the second half just 4-for-18, while Villanova began 5-for-11, Providence responded with the next 10 points, on a 3-point play by senior center Carson Desrosiers (seven points), a jumper in the lane from Dunn (who was still the only Friar in double figures, with 15 points by that stage) Lindsey’s second 3-pointer and a dunk by Bentil (12 points and 10 rebounds), to climb within 47-44 with just under nine minutes left.
An Ochefu 3-point play ended a Wildcats scoring drought of more than five minutes, but a layup by Dunn made it 50-46 just before the under-8 timeout.
Bentil powered his way to a 3-point play that had him join Dunn in double figures while more importantly cutting a six-point hole in half, at 52-49, with 6:37 to play.
Ochefu muscled in a layup to get Villanova’s lead back to five points, and a after a lefty hook by Ochefu rolled around and out, Hart cleaned up the miss with a putback layup that gave the Wildcats a bit of space, at 56-49, with 5:23 to go.
However, the Friars wouldn’t wilt, as a nice cross-court feed from Dunn set Lindsey up for a right wing trey that reduced the margin to 56-52.
Almost two minutes later, Dunn made one of two free throws before Bentil did the same to cut the lead 56-54, with 2:13 left.
Hart made a 3-pointer to push margin back to five points, and once again, Providence made only one of two free throws, this time, by Henton, to keep it a 61-57 Villanova edge with 58.4 seconds remaining.
Arcidiacono missed a layup and Pinkston couldn’t get a tip to go, which allowed Dunn to cut the lead in half again on a layup.
Mishandling the ensuing inbounds pass, Ennis lost the ball and Bentil shoveled a pass to Dunn, who waited patiently before converting a game-tying layup with 12.4 seconds left.
By that point, the Friars has flipped the script, outscoring the Wildcats by the same 33-28 margin in the second half that Villanova led by at halftime. And blowing a late four-point lead in about as many seconds might rattle many teams.
But not Wright’s.
“We just say, ‘attitude’ to each other,” Wright said. “That’s our word we know. ‘Next play, man, next play.’ They’re more calm than I am. There was no doubt we were going to make a play there. The concern was going to be how much time was going to be left [afterwards], and were we going to be able to get a stop?”
Hart added, “It wasn’t really tough at all. “Like Coach said, we got in the huddle and looked at each other and said ‘attitude,’ and we moved on to the next play. We had 12 more seconds left to play Villanova basketball. We knew we had one mistake, but it was in the past. We focused on the next play… and luckily it worked out for us.”
By design, that next play involved spacing the floor with dangerous shooters, Ochefu setting a back screen and Arcidiacono having the option of kicking out to a teammate for an open jumper or attacking the basket himself.
“The play was to inbound the ball to Daniel, [then for] Daniel get it back to Ryan, and then spread the floor and set a middle ball screen,” Wright said. “We had three shooters around Ryan. That’s why he got to the rim because they knew we had three shooters out there, and Daniel set the back screen.”
Driving along the right blocks, Arcidiacono didn’t appear to draw much contact from Bentil with the body, but he was nonetheless sent to the line for the game-winning free throws.
Henton tried a running 3-pointer from deep, along the left wing, but it had no chance as time expired.
Head coach Ed Cooley gave a typically classy assessment of the call that allowed Arcidiacono to win the game.
“The last play of the game was a 50‑50 call,” he said. “I think we have the best officials in the country. I think the Big East has always had the best officials in the country. It doesn’t come down to one play. I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to ask me about that. At the end of the day, we have the best officials in the country. It was a 50‑50 call. It can go either way. It just didn’t go our way tonight.”
Each coach said his team gained something from being in such a close, tough, physical game, in which Providence shot just 35 percent (21-for-60) but stayed in the contest by continually fighting for every loose ball, to the tune of a 42-30 rebound advantage, including 19-9 on the offensive glass.
“I think that’s going to be a great experience for us,” Wright said. “That’s going to be something for us to look back on and learn from. You need that. We really haven’t had many games like that, and it was good for us.
A lot of end‑of‑game situations, we made some mistakes, we did some things well, but we’ll learn from that. It’s good to be in a game like that at the end of the year.”
Moments later, Cooley said, “[I’m] really proud of our group. I thought we played hard. I thought we played with great purpose. I thought we played with a great sense of urgency, playing Villanova, who I think is playing as well as anybody in the country.
“To me, it wasn’t so much about Villanova today. It was about what Providence was able to do. I thought our players were great. I really did… I don’t think many teams around the country want to play Providence right now. I’m glad we’re playing as well as we are right now… the environment was great. It was a big time environment, and I feel really, really bad for our kids because the game was right there for us to win.”
Villanova awaits the winner between second-seeded Georgetown and sixth-seeded Xavier in the night’s other semifinal game to see who it will play in the Big East Championship Game on Saturday night at 8 p.m. eastern time.
XAVIER HOLDS OFF BIG GEORGETOWN RALLY TO REACH FIRST BIG EAST FINAL
NEW YORK — Through about the first 32 minutes, the Xavier Musketeers were duplicating the same successful formula they followed twice before against the Georgetown Hoyas (in a 70-53 home win on Dec. 31 and a 66-53 road victory at Georgetown on Jan. 27).
Then everything suddenly fell apart, and Musketeers had to finally do what they struggled to do well all game — hit a couple of free throws — to barely escape with a 65-63 Big East tournament semifinal victory at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, in what should have been another easy win over the Hoyas (21-10, 13-7 Big East).
Even if it was difficult in the end, Xavier (21-12, 11-9 Big East) still managed to reach the Big East finals for the first time after getting as far as the semifinals in the Musketeers’ inaugural season in the Big East last year.
After trailing by eight points early, a big run to close the first half gave Xavier (21-12, 11-9 Big East) a double-digit halftime lead, which the Musketeers widened to as much as 21 points in the second half.
But freshman forward Isaac Copeland (15 points on 6-of-9 shooting) and senior guard Jabril Trawick (team-high 19 points, while going 10-for-12 at the free throw line) very nearly brought Georgetown all the back from a deficit that was still as high as 19 points with under eight minutes remaining.
“I think this comeback shows how deep of a team we are” Copeland said. “It’s not easy to come back from down 20 like we were. It shows we have a lot of heart.”
A furious late comeback brought the Hoyas to within one point on two separate occasions in the final seconds, but despite finishing 1-for-8 from the field over the final 13:23 and starting just 13-for-24 (54.2 percent) from the foul line, Xavier made six straight free throws when it absolutely needed to, in order to fend Georgetown off and secure a meeting with top-seeded Villanova in Saturday night’s championship game.
Long before the Hoyas found themselves trying to dig out of a huge hole, Georgetown was in control.
Trawick started the game with a 3-point play before senior center Matt Stainbrook (who posted game highs of 20 points and nine rebounds) and his senior counterpart Joshua Smith (10 points) each scored the next four points for their respective teams, as the Hoyas took a 7-4 lead less than 2½ minutes into the game.
Junior guard Remy Abell (10 points) tied the game on a trey, but a 3-point play for Smith capped a string of seven straight Hoya points, while giving him as many points as Xavier and half of Georgetown’s, with the Hoyas up, 14-7, after a little less than seven minutes.
A 3-point play by Smith gave him 10 points and extended the Hoyas’ lead to 19-11, with 10:33 left in the half, but 3-pointers from freshman forward Trevon Bluiett (nine points) and reserve freshman guard J.P. Macura (eight points) brought the Musketeers to within two points.
Reserve freshman forward Paul White (six points, team-high five assists) answered with his own trey to move Georgetown’s edge to 22-17.
That’s when things completely fell apart for the Hoyas, especially after Smith picked up his second foul 7½ minutes before halftime and sat out the rest of the opening half. He would later foul out while logging only 17 total minutes and failing to score the rest of the way.
Xavier took full advantage of Smith’s absence, closing the half on an 18-4 run, sparked by five points from Macura early in the spurt and eight points from Stainbrook, who beat the first-half buzzer with a tip-in that sent the Musketeers to the locker room with a 35-26 lead and a bunch of momentum.
Smith was called for his third foul on Xavier’s first possession of the second half. Gambling, head coach John Thompson III didn’t sub him out until nearly three minutes later, with 16:26 left, and the Musketeers’ ahead, 42-28, after Stainbrook scored five points to key a 7-2 run.
That stretch turned into a 14-2 spurt and a game-high 49-28 advantage with 13:24 to play almost two minutes after Smith re-entered the game at the 15:13 mark.
Georgetown got no closer than 49-33 until the Hoyas later cut a 20-point deficit in half with 10 straight points as Trawick and Copeland scored four points each. By then, Xavier’s lead was down to 53-43, with 6:06 to play.
“I think we finally started getting the ball in the middle of their zone,” Thompson said. “For too long of a stretch, we were just passing the ball around the perimeter. But we started getting the ball into the middle of it and making correct decisions.
I think that, when we finally started to score, our defense [also] got better. So we weren’t scoring for stretches, and then they were coming down, and our defense wasn’t good. Once we started scoring, our defense got better.
Copeland made a jumper (to get the margin to single digits) and a 3-pointer to trim Georgetown’s deficit to a manageable six points, with 4:10 to play.
Making his fifth straight shot, Copeland was up to 11 points when his jumper ended a 17-4 run that started with the Hoyas scoring 15 of 16 points.
Bluiett made a 3-pointer on the prior possession to increase Xavier’s lead to 57-48, while providing the Musketeers’ first field goal in almost 10 minutes.
Four free throws by Trawick closed a 9-3 stretch that kept the Hoyas within 59-54 with 1:30 to go, and after a misses by Stainbrook and junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (who was held to 11 points, more than five below his team-leading average), senior guard Dee Davis (four points, game highs of eight assists and three steals) missed a pair of free throws, which allowed White to bring Georgetown within 59-57 on a right corner trey with 23.6 seconds left.
About four seconds later, sophomore guard Myles Davis (five points) made only one of two free throws to keep it a one possession game, at 60-57.
Smith-Rivera scored on a layup, to bring the Hoyas within 60-59 with 14.7 seconds to play.
Dee Davis was fouled with 10.3 seconds left, and although he had been 0-for-4 from the line to that point, he coolly sank both foul shots to extend Xavier’s edge to 62-59.
Rather than give up a potential game-tying 3-pointer, head coach Chris Mack had the Musketeers foul.
As a result, Trawick went to the line and knocked down two free throws to make it 62-61 with 5.2 seconds to go.
Myles Davis was fouled next, and he made two free throws to give the Musketeers a 64-61 lead with 4.6 seconds left.
Once again, Xavier fouled and Trawick made the first free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining.
With Georgetown down by two points and out of time outs, Trawick inadvertently made the second free throw to cut the Musketeers’ lead to 64-63.
“I was trying to miss it,” Trawick said of the second free throw, as the Hoyas were hoping for an offensive rebound to allow them to score and tie the game before time ran out.
“We have enough trouble practicing making [free throws], so I can honestly say we never practice missing [them],” Thompson joked, when asked how much his team works on such situations.
One free throw miss that did help Xavier was the one after junior forward James Farr made a foul shot for his only point of the game, to make the score the final margin. Farr’s second attempt bounced off the rim and into the left corner, leaving the Hoyas unable to get a shot off in time after they tracked down the rebound and the final second-plus ticked off.
“I feel like, if we played three more minutes, we might have lost by 17,” relieved head coach Chris Mack said. “I don’t think it’s anything other than we missed some free throws. You can’t stop momentum if you can’t score.
“Georgetown started to solve the zone we had out in the second half. I thought we did a good job, for the most part, of taking care of the basketball, drawing some fouls. We did have a few turnovers down the stretch. We’ve been the league’s best free‑throw shooting team all year in conference play. Tonight, we didn’t do even close to what we’re capable of, especially down the stretch. But we hit enough at the very, very end to play tomorrow night.”
Combined with Villanova’s 63-61 semifinal win over fourth-seeded Providence, the Musketeers’ victory provided the closest semifinal round in the 36-year history of the Big East tournament.
After sweeping all three game against Georgetown this season, Xavier will have to avoid being on the other end of the same scenario to win a championship against Villanova, which beat the Musketeers at home, 88-75, on Jan. 14 and on the road, 78-66, on Feb. 28.
However, as good as the Wildcats are, their style is a good one to have to prepare for in the roughly 19 hours that Xavier had to get ready for the title game after beating the Hoyas.
“Fortunately, Villanova is a very, very simple team, but they’re also really, really good,” Mack said. “When I say that, they don’t run all these different actions and 50 set plays. If we had to play Butler tomorrow night, that might be an issue. They run a million plays. It’s [Villanova’s] players that get you, how hard they play. Our guys know them very, very well, having played them in this true round‑robin league a lot.”
Comparing Villanova’s style with that of his own team, Mack said, “They tend to play four perimeter players… [sometimes] four guards and a small power forward, if you will… so just the contrast with the traditional lineup in the frontcourt versus a four quick line would be the major difference.”
He then quipped “And their coach (Jay Wright) dresses a hell of a lot sharper than me.”
Of course, Mack and his team will look just perfect on Saturday night if they happen to be wearing Big East championship gear.
All photos by Jon Wagner at Madison Square Garden, in New York, N.Y., on March 13, 2015