NEW YORK — Providence came into Madison Square Garden on the wrong side of the bubble. After Bryce Cotton and a stifling Providence zone were done on Saturday night, they left with a 65-58 win and their first Big East title in two decades.
On a night that many thought would belong to Doug McDermott, it was Cotton who took home the Dave Gavitt Trophy as the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. The senior point guard from Arizona has been the lynchpin of coach Ed Cooley’s program during his time in Providence, making the All-Big East First Team the last two years, playing more minutes than any other player in the country this season and leading the conference in assists.
“I told Cotton Candy if he didn’t shoot the ball, we were going to have a one-on-one fight and I was going to lose,” said Cooley after the game. His threat was acknowledged, even though Cotton hadn’t shot it well the previous two games.
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After Creighton followed their worst offensive first half of the year with a flurry of points to start the second stanza, Cotton took over. Over a four-minute stretch, the guard either scored or assisted on 15 of 17 Friar points, knocking down threes, free throws and streaking for a fast-break layup after a scrum on the other end. He ended the game with 23 points, five boards, an assist and a steal. He, of course, played all 40 minutes.
Doug McDermott did everything could to keep his Bluejays in the game, scoring 27 points and hitting consecutive threes that made it a 58-56 game with just over a minute left. On the other end, Friar junior LaDontae Henton calmly knocked down a jumper from the wing to push the margin back to four. When McDermott’s deep three on other end fell short, the game became a free-throw shooting contest the Friars (23 of 26 on the night) won.
The game was played in front of an amped crowd, with the Creighton fans who’d been hanging out in Manhattan all week joined by scores of Friar faithful who made the three-hour drive to see Providence compete in their first Big East final since 1994. To put the three wins in three days in perspective, Providence had won two Big East Tournament games over the last sixteen years.
While Cotton powered Providence on the offensive end, it was a suffocating defensive effort by the Friars that set the tone for the win. The Bluejays came in with the most efficient offense college hoops has seen over the last decade and exited the first half with all of 17 points. Over the first twenty minutes, the Friars surprisingly went to zone, holding Creighton to 34 percent shooting from the field, flustering them into a 1-of-12 effort from three and denying them a single trip to the foul line. A visibly frustrated McDermott gestured to the refs, the bench and anyone whose eye he could catch looking for a call.
“That zone is tough,” said McDermott after the game. “I don’t think we were really expecting zone. I thought we were kind of panicking almost to start the game, and rushing stuff and not making the extra passes.”
“We knew they were a great transition team and one of the fastest teams in the country,” said Cotton. “We wanted to make sure we did a good job controlling tempo, not rushing our shots, and our zone, making sure we’re aware of where McDermott was.”
“This is something our school and city hasn’t seen in a long time. For us to finally bring that back home, it’s top of the list.”
“We played with a lot of heart, we played with a lot of soul and we played with a lot of determination,” said Cooley, who’s leaned on a rotation of only six players most of the year. Out of 351 college basketball teams in the nation, no squad has their starters play more minutes than the Friars.
Providence’s journey from bubble to bid started Thursday afternoon against St. John’s in what was essentially an NCAA tournament elimination game. The Friars nearly blew a 17-point lead but survived to take out eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the semifinals Friday night. Their reward was a battle against the Bluejays, who had blown them out last Saturday night in Omaha.
It’s a bitter ending for Creighton’s first trip to the Big East Tournament, but they’re safely in the tournament and will likely be a top-four seed. It’s the first time the Bluejays have lost a conference tournament final in 30 years, ending a stretch of 10 straight victories in title games.
For Providence, it was nothing but jubilation as a rapturous crowd celebrated the cutting down of the nets while “New York, New York” played. Safely in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004, the Friars can focus on something they haven’t been able to do the last three days: rest.
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