March 14, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
NEW YORK – The prevailing theory heading into Thursday’s BIG EAST tournament quarterfinal game between Providence and St. John’s was that it was, in effect, an elimination game for the loser. Not just from the BIG EAST tournament, but “off-the-bubble, out-of-the-NCAA-tournament, on-your-way-to-the-NIT” type of elimination.
So what was one of the first topics of Providence coach Ed Cooley’s postgame press conference following his Friars’ 79-74 victory over the Red Storm? It was about how much the Red Storm belonged in the NCAA tournament.
But first things first, which is how Providence made itself much more attractive to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee after knocking off a hot Johnnies club and on its home court, no less. For the Friars it didn’t happen in the traditional way – which means Bryce Cotton having a major hand in it. No, this time it was Kadeem Batts posting a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. It was LaDontae Henton, with a double-double of his own (16 points, 11 boards) delivering a clutch layup down the stretch. And, of course, there was the Friars’ good fortune to have Josh Fortune on hand to play the role of savior.
Fortune, who came into the game averaging just eight points a game, exploded for a career-best 24 points and sank two clutch free throws with 25.5 seconds to play to give the Friars a 73-68 lead that effectively ended matters with St. John’s.
“(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.”
It’s rare when a coach thinks one of his players doesn’t shoot enough, but such is the case with Cooley regarding Fortune.
“I think Josh is a big reason why we’ve grown the last five or six games,” Cooley said. “He doesn’t shot the ball enough for me. When you look at the success we’ve had the last couple of weeks, he’s a big reason for it…If you leave him open I think it’s going in every time he shoots it. So he’ll be shooting again (Friday vs. Seton Hall). If not, we’re going to have a fight.”
Speaking of fights, that’s what this game was, an old-fashioned, physical, old-school BIG EAST game. No lead was safe, as the Friars found out when they saw their 17-point cushion with 6:24 to play dwindle to a skinny 69-68 advantage with 1:15 to go thanks to a furious St. John’s rally.
D’Angelo Harrison (seven points) and Orlando Sanchez (six) were the key contributors in the run and with the Garden – St. John’s home court remember – rocking, it appeared the Johnnies (20-12) were about to pull off a stunning come-from-behind victory.
But Providence (21-11), the nation’s premier free-throw shooting team at 78.3%, proceeded to sink their final 10 foul shots in the final 31 seconds with six coming from Cotton, who finished just 1-of-10 from the field but was 10-of-13 from the free throw line. With the victory sealed, Providence had made another compelling argument why it belongs in the NCAA tournament while St. John’s, which was led by Harrison’s 21 points, was left in NCAA limbo.
“That was a tournament team,” Cooley said of the Johnnies. “I think St. John’s is clearly an NCAA team. When you look at the depth of our league, what’s happened in this tournament clearly shows how strong our league is from top to bottom.”
But Cooley couldn’t dwell on St. John’s fate. He had a game vs. Seton Hall to get ready for in Friday night’s semifinals.
“I’m excited to advance because that’s what tournament play is all about,” Cooley said. “We’re excited to play Seton Hall, they’re playing very well the last two games. So (we’ll) get some rest, throw the ball up (Friday) and play again.”
As for the Johnnies it’s now a case of wait and wait some more, as they sweat out Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show.
“Clearly at this stage of the season it’s in the Selection Committee’s hands,” St. John’s head 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 plusses. But losing the first round of your conference tournament is not a good thing when you’re trying to play in the postseason.”