NEW YORK — “Weather the storm!”
A particularly loud member of Xavier’s very vocal pep band shouted the above phrase early in the first half of the Musketeers’ Big East semifinal against Creighton. The weather he was referring to was the barrage of Bluejay threes raining down upon his team. Unfortunately for Xavier and their fans, the storm lasted for the better part of two hours as the Musketeers fell 86-78.
It was another night of history making for Doug McDermott - who moved past Keydren Clark and Harry Kelly to fifth on the all-time scoring list – but he was just the biggest part of a multi-pronged attack that shot 55% from the field, made 21-of-24 free throws, knocked down 11 threes and assisted on 18 of 27 made field goals. McDermott now has 3,078 career points after his 32 on Friday night, sitting 89 points behind Alphonso Ford’s fourth-place mark. McDermott's 67 points in his first two Big East Tournament games also broke Allen Iverson's old record of 58.
With Madison Square Garden converted into CenturyLink Center East thanks to a massive group of fans who made the trip from Omaha, Creighton made it through their second straight night without trailing. The Musketeers were game all night, bodying up McDermott and scraping back from a 19-point deficit to get as close as five in the final minutes. Despite the loss, Xavier will likely end up on the right side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, but it will be close.
The Bluejays are rolling through their first Big East season, setting the mark for the most wins by a new member and becoming the first conference newbie to make the tournament final since Villanova in 1981. McDermott and company are very comfortable in the postseason, having won the last two Missouri Valley Conference Tournaments before jumping leagues.
"It's just an unreal feeling," said Creighton forward Ethan Wragge, who finished with 17 points and five threes. "Five years ago, I was playing just in the Missouri Valley, and now today - or tomorrow, at least - we'll be playing for one of the most historic college tournaments of all time. It's just an unbelievable feeling, unbelievable ride, and we're excited for it."
"It's just a dream come true," said McDermott when asked to describe playing in the Garden. "It's an unbelievable atmosphere and we couldn't ask for a better way. We're glad we could play our third game here tomorrow."
Their opponent will be the Providence Friars, an original member of the Big East conference who advanced with an 80-74 snuffing of potential Cinderella Seton Hall. It’s been a while since Providence has seen this kind of postseason success. Despite hosting the inaugural Big East Tournament at the Providence Civic Center in 1980 and playing in every edition since, Providence has only made one final, a 1994 championship under Rick Barnes. Friday night also doubled as the Friars’ first semifinal appearance since 1997.
While Creighton would obviously love to take the tournament title in their first year, the stakes are significantly higher for the Friars, who could eliminate any bubble worries with the Big East’s automatic bid. Despite advancing to Saturday night in the Garden, Providence still isn’t a lock for entry to the big dance with 11 losses and an RPI hovering around 50.
The Friars have more than a shot at the crown after splitting the two regular season match ups with the Bluejays. Providence won at home 81-68 back in January, holding their normally efficient guests to just 9 assists and 4-of-19 shooting from behind the arc. Creighton got their revenge at home last Saturday on Senior Night, as McDermott poured in 45 to lead an 88-73 rout.
The championship will pit two unanimous All-Big East first team members against one another, with Providence’s marathon man Bryce Cotton going against conference Player of the Year McDermott. The Friars point guard has earned first-team honors in consecutive years and is currently averaging over forty minutes a game, an absurd stat buoyed by his ridiculous stamina and the team’s ten overtime sessions so far this season.
“He’s played every minute that God created this year,” said Friars head coach Ed Cooley after the game, thanking his senior point guard. “God bless him. He’s done a great job.”
“I just feel like it’s a blessing to be here and play at the Garden and make it to the championship game,” said Friar forward Tyler Harris. “It was great, especially with this team, of how close we’ve become and just with the program and how we can make an impact on this program. I just feel like it’s a great opportunity.”
Providence has the weapons to keep up with the Bluejays onslaught, as Cotton is just one of four Friars that have scored 17 or more in a game during tournament play. Fatigue and foul trouble could play a factor, as Providence really only goes six deep, ranking last in the nation (out of 351 teams) in bench minutes.
The 35th Big East Tournament title game will tip at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night.