by Dan Gardella
New York – Providence had sealed themselves into the NCAA Tournament with their overtime win over Creighton yesterday afternoon. Tonight, they had an opportunity to put a big win on their resume as they took on the Xavier Musketeers in the opening game of Semi-Final Friday at Madison Square Garden. Both teams have been known for being successful in Big East Tournament in the past as both teams have seen multiple Semi-Final and Finals appearances in the new conference’s five-year history. Providence overcame a 14-point halftime deficit, the third largest comeback in the tournament’s history to shock Xavier 75-72 in overtime in front of a sold-out crowd.
After both teams exchanged baskets in the opening minutes, Providence only trailed by 2 after a Nate Watson jumper made it 9-7 Xavier. From there, Xavier ran all over the Friars, going on a 21-10 run to open the lead to 30-17.
Ed Cooly’s team however, did not stress and tried to figure out a way to climb back into it.
“We’re at Madison Square Garden. We’re in the semi-finals. There’s so many people that would love to be in this building at this time. Why are we so hesitant to play? Play.” said Cooly about his message to his team trailing by double digits.
The Friars would fight hard to finish the first half but found themselves down 43-29 at halftime. It was needless to say, the Friars needed a comeback and needed it quick.
“I had a lot of words to say” said Friar head coach Ed Cooly about his halftime speech.
Those words did not exactly kick in immediately as they traded points with Xavier and found themselves in their largest hole of the evening after a JP Macura three-pointer made it 52-37 with 14:48 to play. The Friars responded with an 8-0 run capped off by four straight points form freshman Makai Ashton-Langford and an Alpha Diallo layup to cut the lead to 52-43 with 13 minutes to play.
Both teams would trade baskets for the next four minutes which kept the lead at eight. Time was shrinking and the Friars were in trouble of falling to the mighty Musks’.
Then came Nate Watson.
A member of the All Big East freshman team, Watson would convert on three straight attempts to help Providence cut the deficit to 59-57 with seven minutes to play. The Garden became a little bit louder and the Friar faithful became a little more into it. On the ensuing possession, Karem Kanter, the go-to guy for Xavier throughout the game knocked down a three to open the lead back to two possessions. Providence would not be able to completely overcome the deficit until Rodney Bullock’s jumper finish a brief 5-0 run to knot the score at 64 with 3:46 to play. The teams would go back and forth scoring the ball finished off by two Kyron Cartwright free throws to tie the score at 68 and sent the game into overtime.
The extra time began with Xavier going to their All-American Trevon Bluiett. Bluiett, who was struggling from the field throughout regulation, put Alpha Diallo on skates and dropped him to the ground before sinking a step-back two pointer to open the scoring.
That would prove to be Xavier’s only field goal of the overtime period.
Following Bluiett’s basket, Providence scored the next five points from a Watson free throw, a Diallo jumper and a strong Cartwright layup to make it 73-70. Bluiett nailed two free throws on the next drive cutting the lead back to one.
But in this conference, especially this season, seasoned seniors make senior-like plays.
After a missed layup by Providence’s Isaiah Jackson, Xavier had a 2-on-1 fast break looking to retake the lead in the closing seconds. JP Macura drove to the basket but was met by Cartwright who stepped in front and took the charge to give Providence possession with seven seconds to play.
For Cartwright, that is something that has been rehearsed over and over again.
“We work on that drill all the time three on two, two on one. And when I saw – it might have been (Quentin) Goodin running on the side – we do that drill all the time” said Cartwright.
Alpha Diallo knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 75-72 Friars. Xavier inbounded the ball to Quentin Goodin, who drove in toward the basket before trying to pass the ball back out. However, time had run out for the Muskies.
In the countless promotions for this season’s Big East Tournament, Ed Cooly talks about “City Swag.”. His players, possess it in a strong way and thrive on playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena this season, improving to 4-0 inside the Garden dating back to their 2K Classic Tournament victory in November.
“You have to walk through life like you own it, but be humble and always be selfless.” said Cooly. “That’s what we teach our players. But swag we’re built for that, we’re built for the moment.”
For Xavier, their big guns of Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura failed to find any groove on the offensive side of the ball, combining to shoot 6-24, ultimately leading to their fourth loss against a Big East foe and fifth game overall.
“Certainly a tough game. It feels like it’s a game that shoulda, coulda, woulda. Give them credit. They hung in there and we didn’t deliver the knockout punch that was needed.” said Xavier head coach Chris Mack.
Karem Kanter poured in a game-high 18 points for Xavier (28-5) in the building where his brother Enes, the center for the Knicks calls home.
“Winning this tournament was one of our goals. And it sucks we’re not playing tomorrow, but I’m still glad we’ve got a lot more basketball to play.” Said Kanter
For Providence (21-12), they will head to the Big East Championship for the second time in five seasons. They are 2-0 all time in Big East Tournament Championships, winning in 1994 and 2014.