Providence beats St. John's 79-74 to reach semisSt. John's head coach Steve Lavin points during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Providence in the second round of the Big East Conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
NEW YORK (AP) -- Providence had better than good fortune. The Friars had Josh Fortune.
The sophomore guard scored a career-high 24 points on the day all-conference guard Bryce Cotton had one of the his worst games and Providence hung on for a 79-74 victory over St. John's on Thursday to advance to the Big East tournament semifinals for the first time in 17 years.
The Friars led by 17 points with 6:24 to play but had their lead cut to one point with 1:15 to go. Still, they will play eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the semifinals on Friday night. The Pirates beat top-seeded and third-ranked Villanova 64-63 on a buzzer-beating jumper by Sterling Gibbs.
It will be the Friars' first semifinal appearance since 1997. They lost their last five games in the Big East tournament.
''I'm excited to advance because that's what tournament play is all about,'' Providence coach Ed Cooley said. ''There's a lot of game balls to go around, and I couldn't be more proud of the group. We're excited to play Seton Hall tomorrow. ... So get some rest, throw the ball up tomorrow, and play again.''
Providence (21-11) may not yet have secured an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, but the loss almost surely ended the chance of the Red Storm (20-12) to make the field of 68.
D'Angelo Harrison led St. John's, which had won eight of 10, with 21 points and he grabbed 10 rebounds.
Cooley thinks the Red Storm should be in the field.
''They're a tournament team, deservedly so, because they come out of the Big East and the conference is a monster,'' he said.
The Friars are still around because of Fortune, who stepped up big time when Cotton, the league's second-leading scorer with a 21.7 average and who entered on a streak of seven straight games of 20 or more points, was 1 of 10 from the field and had 12 points.
''If you had told me Bryce would be 1-for-10 shooting and 0 for 4 from the 3-point line and we'd be sitting here. I'd be lying to you,'' Cooley said at the postgame news conference. ''He's been as consistent a player as I coached for a full season.''
Providence took a 63-46 lead with 6:24 left on a layup by LaDontae Henton. The Red Storm, who suddenly started playing aggressively both on defense and in their offensive rebounding, went on a 22-6 run in which Harrison scored seven of the last 11 points. His two free throws with 1:15 to go brought St. John's within 69-68.
Providence then did what it does better than any team in the Big East - make free throws. The Friars, who came in shooting 78.3 percent from the line, went 10 for 10 over the final 31 seconds - with Cotton making six - to hold off the Red Storm.
Cotton scored 21 and 32 points in the two meetings between the teams this season which they split.
But it was Fortune, whose previous best was 18 points, who was the offensive star for the Friars. He was 8 for 13 from the field including going 4 of 7 from 3-point range. While Cotton struggled with foul trouble and poor shooting, Fortune made big shot after big shot to keep the Friars' hopes of a second Big East title alive. Their only championship was in 1994.
''Coach told me to be aggressive and keep shooting,'' Fortune said. ''I saw a few layups go in and I just felt like I could make every shot. Coach told me to keep shooting and stay aggressive and my teammates found me.''
Henton had 16 points for Providence while Kadeem Batts had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Rysheed Jordan had 17 points - 14 in the first half - for the Red Storm and JaKarr Sampson had 15 points and nine rebounds. Orlando Sanchez had eight points and 12 rebounds.
''Clearly at this stage of the season, it's in the selection committee's hands,'' Red Storm coach Steve Lavin said. ''I think, if you look at our body of work and a number of the criteria they consider, we clearly have some pluses. But losing in the first round of your conference tournament is not a good thing when you're trying to play in the postseason.''
Lavin said he thought the Red Storm ''played well in stretches but then we had periods where we didn't play with the necessary aggressiveness.''
While Providence went 22 of 30 from the free throw line, St. John's was 13 of 26.
''We missed free throws. ... We weren't playing St. John's basketball,'' Harrison said. ''You saw the last six, seven minutes. If we did that the whole game it would have been a different kind of ballgame. We waited too late. We were just flat until the end.''
St. John's was looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2000.