“What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league,” Ed Cooley said after his Providence team earned a spot in Saturday’s Big East title game.
Providence and Villanova won their Big East semifinal games in very different ways. The Friars erased a 17-point second half deficit to upset Xavier 75-72 in overtime. The Wildcats began their game against Butler by scoring the first 19 points en route to a 87-68 win.
Xavier beat St. John’s by 28 on Thursday and took a 14-point lead into halftime against the Friars. Cooley had some things to say in the locker room. “In our business you have to have real conversation with these young men; you can’t sugarcoat anything. We’re at Madison Square Garden. We’re in the semifinals. There’s so many people that would love to be in this building at this time. Why are we so hesitant to play? Play.”
Alpha Diallo and Rodney Bullock scored 17 points apiece. Kyron Cartwright scored 15 and Nate Watson added 14 off the bench. JP Macura had two chances to win it for Xavier. At the end of regulation, he had his shot blocked after attacking the basket. Down one in overtime, he drove to the basket and was called for a charge. “He’s been in the league a long time,” Cooley said of Macura. “He’s a great player. I mean, we had to get stops. The game was very, very physical.”
Kerem Kanter, who led Xavier with 18 points, made a three-pointer after the buzzer sounded in overtime as the Friars finished off the comeback. Even down 17 with 15:20 remaining, Providence wasn’t out of it. “We had a lot of times out there, Coach is not out there with us the whole time, but we had a moment where we had to hold each other accountable,” Cartwright said. “It’s something that we didn’t do early on in the year. But when we needed it most, we did. We picked on some people, we started yelling at each other. But we didn’t take it personal and that was a big thing for us.”
Providence is the second team in Big East Tournament history to win consecutive overtime games. Syracuse did it in 2009, including the epic six overtime game against Connecticut. This will be the first conference tournament title game appearance for the fifth-seeded Friars since they beat Creighton in 2014.
Villanova jumped out to a 19-0 lead and then held serve, taking a 19-point lead into halftime and then winning by 19. Even Butler shooting 48 percent as a team couldn’t make this a close game. “That was one of our best defensive performances,” Jay Wright said. “We played well. They’re a really good offensive team.”
The offense, which made 14 threes, wasn’t too shabby, either. All five starters finished in double-figures. Mikal Bridges scored a team-high 18 points, Jalen Brunson scored 17, Phil Booth added 14, and Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman had 12 apiece. Donte DiVincenzo dished out a team-high six assists off the bench.
Villanova will hope to have an even scoring attack like that against the Friars. “It’s very important,” Wright said. “That’s really the key to our team is the balance, when we have balance. Providence is always really tough on us defensively. They really grind. They play an incredible second half defensively tonight.”
In late January, Villanova beat Providence by 20. Three weeks later, the Friars defended their home court with a five point win over Villanova.
The winner of the rubber match will be the 2018 Big East champions.