By Dan Gardella
New York – In their two matchups this season, Villanova and Providence each had their night while the other one struggled. In their first matchup, Villanova shot the lights out and had six players score in double figures in an 89-69 victory on January 23rd. The following matchup was not as kind for the Wildcats as Providence held them to 3-20 from the three-point line and shocked Villanova 76-71 inside the Dunkin Donuts Center on February 14th. The rubber match would have more implications on the line as the two teams met on the biggest stage, Madison Square Garden to fight for the Big East Tournament Championship.
The road to the finals was vastly different for each team. Providence entered Saturday night winners of two straight, high intensity, overtime games against Creighton and Xavier. Villanova on the other hand, entered the championship off of a 24 and 21-point victory thanks to almost perfect shooting at times.
The teams would play the best championship game since the conference reconfigured as Villanova would ride their leaders in Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson to win their third Big East Tournament title in the last four seasons, taking down the Friars 76-66 in overtime.
From the opening tip, all the signs of another Villanova blowout were appeared as the Wildcats jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead four minutes in. However, the Friars, like they did multiple times Saturday night found ways to claw back and eventually knot the game at 11 thanks to a 9-0 run over the next three minutes.
The half of runs would continue following the Friars effort to tie the game at 11. Between Bridges and Brunson, Villanova scored the next ten points and took a double-digit lead once again, leading 21-11 halfway through the first half. Once again, Providence used their grit to cut the lead back to one thanks to a 9-0 run. Seven of the nine points during the run came from senior leaders Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock. Providence however would never lead in the first half and walked into the locker room at halftime trailing 31-27.
It was more of the same to start the second frame as Villanova scored the first six points of the half thanks to a three-point play and a three pointer from Brunson to give the Wildcats a 37-27 lead two minutes into the half.
Well, you can imagine how this story will go.
After facing their largest deficit of the game at 12, 39-27, Providence would use 24-12 run to tie the game at 51 with 7:49 to play and took the lead after Drew Edwards converted a three-point play to give the Friars their first lead of the game at 52-51. Villanova would not let Providence lead for long as Mikal Bridges converted on a layup a minute later to give Villanova the one point lead.
The Wildcats would get it to as much as four in the closing minutes but failed to deliver the knockout punch. After Eric Paschall nailed a jumper with 4:27 to play, Villanova would not be able to make another field goal, allowing Providence to tie it up once again and have the ball in the final seconds in their go-to guy’s hands: Kyron Cartwright.
Cartwright, who willed his team with what seemed like runs of his own stood atop the key with 30 seconds to play. After draining the clock down, he dribbled to the left and pulled up with a jump shot that missed and meant things would have to be settled in a familiar place for the Friars: Overtime. Tied at 60.
“We got the shot we wanted in regulation” said Providence head coach Ed Cooly. “I wanted the ball in Kyron’s hands. Wanted to try to bring two to the ball. It worked for us all game. We just weren’t fortunate to get that last shot.”
The overtime period would start off scoreless for the first minute and a half, perhaps fatigue setting in for the Friars who were playing in their Big East Tournament record third overtime game in as many days. Mikal Bridges would get the scoring started in the extra session with a three pointer to put the ‘Cats up 63-60. Following Bridges’ three to open overtime, Villanova and Providence would trade points for the next minute and a half which saw Villanova ahead 68-66 with the Wildcats two minutes away from hoisting another Big East Tournament victory.
On the next Villanova possession, Brunson continued his dominance with a layup to give the Wildcats a four-point lead with 1:17 to play. From there, Providence would not score and the Wildcats would score uncontested layups and dunks to close out the ten-point victory, an ironic margin of victory as the Wildcats failed to hold that same lead numerous times throughout the contest.
As the final buzzer sounded, Villanova was Big East Tournament champs for the fourth time in school history.
“What an incredible college basketball game – atmosphere at the Garden, we just feel so lucky to be a part of it.” said Villanova coach Jay Wright.
In front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden, the third straight session that sold out, it felt like the Wildcats were right in their own backyard.
“It sounded like the Pavilion” said forward Eric Paschall, who finished with 7 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
As the Wildcats gathered on top of the risers, ready to receive their new hardware, Wildcat legends Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham and Randy Foye all stood behind, showing a true value that is not taught in all college basketball programs: Family.
“We play for the ones who came before us. It’s great seeing those guys because we saw what they did when they were here and we see what they’re doing now, and it’s real cool to have them there.” said Mikal Bridges who is likely to join that brotherhood after the season as a projected lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
On the other end for the Friars, a tough way to conclude their time in New York. For Ed Cooly, emotions were flying afterwards.
“I feel for our young men. I thought we played great. I thought we played tough. I thought we played together.” said Cooly.
Together is how they played, nor should they enter the NCAA Tournament without feeling some form of momentum as Cooly’s team took down a projected top seed in the NCAA Tournament in Xavier and a solid team in Creighton.
“We just played two number one seeds back to back in overtime. That told me my team matured at the right time. It told me my team is gritty. It told me my team is tough, resilient, passionate, really good leadership.” said Cooly.
Friars Alpha Diallo and Kyron Cartwright played themselves onto the All-Tournament team while Jalen Brunson added his name onto the team with his strong performance throughout the week. Mikal Bridges took home the hardware as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Both Villanova (30-4) and Providence (21-13) await tomorrow evening as they find out where they will be seeded in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.