Photo courtesy of USA Today.
By David Cordova
This week at the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, all ten teams were in the tournament ready for battle and all had an optimistic attitude. By last night’s game, eight teams had been sent packing, eliminated from the tourney to either await their seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the National Invitational Tournament (commonly referred to as the NIT) or the end of the season, entirely.
The two teams that remained were none other than the Providence Friars and the Villanova Wildcats, two of the Big East’s most dangerous teams.
Being the underdog team, Providence came into the game with a 21-13 overall record, a 10-8 conference record and three upset wins on the season, two of them coming against nationally-ranked Xavier, the first at home on January 6th at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, by the score of 81-72 and in the Big East semifinals on Friday night, winning a much closer game, 75-72. The third upset win was against Villanova on February 14th, also in Providence, when the Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in the country. The Friars would win that one, 76-71.
As for Villanova, they were the highly-favored team coming into the game with a 29-4 record and a No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press poll. Last season, they won the Big East championship in a runaway game over Creighton, 74-60.
This time, it would not be an easy win, as the challenger gave the champion some problems in the form of baskets and clutch free throw shooting and the game would have to go through an overtime period. But in the end, there would only be one winner.
Villanova 76, Providence 66
Early in the beginning of the game, the Wildcats started off strong, running off to an 11-2 lead, with 15:08 to go in the first half, behind the contributions of junior guard Jalen Brunson (31 points and six rebounds) and junior forward Mikal Bridges (25 points).
But then the Friars would then counter with the play of sophomore forward Alpha Diallo (22 points and 10 rebounds) and freshman center Nate Watson (five points), as they went on a 9-0 run to tie the game at 11-11 with 12:30 to go.
Villanova would then go on a 10-0 run on their own, highlighted by the scoring of Bridges, as the Wildcats would lead, 21-11, with 9:38 to go. Once again, Providence would threaten and also stay close throughout the first half, through the scoring display of senior Rodney Bullock (10 points) and the free throw shooting of Diallo, as the Friars would again tie the score at 23-23, with 4:22 to go. Villanova broke away from them, due to two clutch three-pointers from Brunson, and would go into halftime leading, 31-27.
Providence’s defense showed in this game, as they proved they were not a team to be taken lightly. “You’re exactly right. Their length, their length is daunting. And Ed [Cooley], as I said, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country.” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “He’s always got a great game plan. And we know each other so well. So they’re as prepared for us as anybody. So I think in the tournament, when you play bigger, longer teams, that’s what the game’s going to be like. And I think it’s going to prepare us well.”
At the started of the second half, it was evident that Villanova wanted this game bad, as Brunson scored the first eight points of the second half, as the Wildcats led by twelve, 39-27, with 17:27 to go.
They would stay ahead by a dozen points, until moments later, Providence woke up and continue their textbook defensive schemes against Villanova. And also, the hot shooting of senior guard Kyron Cartwright (19 points and six assists) and once again, the consistent free throw shooting of Diallo, would bring the Friars ahead by two, 60-58, with 40.7 seconds to go.
But then Brunson would hit two clutch free throws with 30.1 seconds to go to tie the game at 60-60. Cartwright would get a chance to win the game, but missed, which sent the game into overtime.
In the extra session, Villanova held it down, despite free throws by Cartwright and fellow Providence senior forward Jalen Lindsey (2 points), which would be the Friars last points of the game, as they trailed 68-66, with 1:52 to go. Brunson hit a jumper with 1:17 to go to bring the Wildcats ahead by four, 70-66. After that, six consecutive points by sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (6 points) and Brunson would put the game out of reach, bringing the Wildcats their third Big East championship in four years.
“What an incredible college basketball game — atmosphere at the Garden, we just feel so lucky to be a part of it.” said Wright, after the game. “Congratulations to Providence on an incredible season. And just what a tough team, man. Either team could have won that obviously overtime game. We just, hey, we had a great player pick up a loose ball and shoot a 3. It’s obviously not great offense or anything.
Providence defensively was unbelievable. Just a really gutty performance. I’m proud of our leadership. These two guys and Phil Booth, that was the difference for us.”
Both Brunson and Bridges were the X-factors for Villanova, as they both scored 56 combined points this Big East championship game.
“Those are two I was going to start with. Eric got so many extra possessions for us. He was credited with six offensive rebounds but there was a number that he tipped free that we came up with. I think it had a big difference in the game.” says Wright about the effectiveness of his team against the Friars. “And Omari defensively, I think Ed’s one of the best coaches in the country. He gets you into mismatches and he runs all his screening action until he gets a mismatch. And they were going after Omari. There were a number of possessions he was on Cartwright, the worst possible matchup for us, and he did a great job. Really proud of him.”
“There’s a lot in my head right now. I feel for our young men. I thought we played great. I thought we played tough. I thought we played together. I thought we had a great game plan coming in. You know, they got out to a couple of quick starts to start the half, but we weathered both storms.” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley. ”
Although Providence didn’t get the win in this game, they stayed in it until the very end, due to the play of Cartwright and Diallo, two players that carried them throughout the entire game.
“What beat us today was little things, not the big picture. Rebound the ball, game over. It’s really that simple. Their offensive rebounds in a critical part of the game, I think they had four offensive rebounds in five possessions. If you just get one of those, one of those four, you win the game. Overtime, you know, they had a lot of players on the floor. I thought we got a little rattled in overtime. Just speechless on that, but I’ve got to give my team a lot of credit. And more importantly, Villanova is a great team. Brunson, Bridges, two high-, high-level players. The other guys played off — they carried their team today. They more than carried their team today and made some tough, tough shots. Bridges two 3s both came off of offensive rebounds in overtime. Foul at the end of the game, offensive rebound. We just weren’t fortunate to pick it up. But credit them. They did a great job. Congratulations to them. What I told the team in the locker room is cherish this moment.” said Cooley.
Many say that the Big East is no longer what it used to be, but last night, that didn’t seem to be the case, as the game attracted a sellout crowd of 19,812 roaring fans into the Garden. It brought back flashes of the old days of Big East past.
“I’m glad you said it. I didn’t want to sound corny, saying it as a coach. But it really is, man. The atmosphere, you know, sold out. You can hear it from the beginning.” said Coach Wright, “The tough physical play. You don’t see that as much in college basketball. Just the crazy plays. Just guys battling, great athletes. Coaches that know each other really well. It was old-school Big East and — old-school Big East in 2018.”
The game even brought out NBA players such as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors and former NBA player Randy Foye. Back in 2006, both Lowry and Foye were a part of the Wildcats team that went on a historic run to the NCAA Elite Eight.
When asked how it felt to have both of his alums at the game, Wright replied, “Don’t make me cry, man. That means the world to me. Those guys, Baker Dunleavy, he’s a coach [at Quinnipiac University], he’s a coach but he played on those teams with Kyle and Randy, and that got us going. And I can’t remember — I don’t think — we didn’t win a Big East Tournament, did we, with those guys? I don’t — I can’t remember who played with who anymore. But I know they got us going. And I know we played some great battles in here. And I wanted them to be up there a part of it, and I wanted our young guys to see how much pride they take in them and following them. I’m up there and Kyle is telling them how good Mikal is, and Randy Foye is telling me how good Jalen is; how he’s going to do in the NBA. To hear it from those guys means a lot.”
There’s no secret that last night was a game for the ages. Both teams will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament this weekend, but one thing many will never forget will be the classic at the Garden that went down in the 2018 Big East championship game.