March 14, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
NEW YORK - It was just a few short days ago when all the talk surrounding the Providence Friars was whether they were an NCAA tournament-worthy program. The pundits said they needed a victory over St. John’s in the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinals in what was viewed as an elimination game for two perceived “bubble” teams.
So the Friars did just that, knocking off St. John’s on its home court to finally get off that pesky bubble. Funny how much the chatter surrounding Providence has changed in just two days because after the Friars took out Seton Hall, 80-74, in Friday night’s BIG EAST semifinal matchup, the talk is now not only about Providence’s first trip to the BIG EAST tournament title game since 1994, but whether they will be toting some championship hardware back home with them after Saturday night’s championship game.
“I look at our games, we’re not the prettiest group,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “At the end of the day we just want to win. I hope it’s ugly and we prevail (Saturday), too. If it plays out the same way we’ll have the same conversation.”
The Friars (22-11), who have logged their most wins in a season since 1997, took an early 15-14 lead after a layup from LaDontae Henton (game-high 26 points) and never relinquished it the rest of the night. The leads fluctuated from a high of 11 to a low of one, but every time Seton Hall (17-17) managed to get close, the Friars had an answer.
Sometimes it was Henton slicing through the lane or dropping in a 3-ball from long range. Other times it was Tyler Harris (17 points), who sank a trio of 3s himself - the Friars had nine treys on the night – and still other times it was Bryce Cotton, the Friars’ ironman, who played all 40 minutes again Friday night and finished with 18 points. Time and again Providence frustrated Seton Hall with big basket after big basket, with seemingly each Friar starter taking his turn delivering.
“(That) showed our poise,” Cooley said. “These kids have played a lot of games. They’ve played a lot of minutes so I think our experience really showed down the stretch. I don’t think we got rattled. We’ve been there before.”
The Pirates, who were coming off their stunning takedown of top-seeded Villanova in the quarterfinals on Thursday, could never get over the hump even as they gamely fought the good fight right until the final horn.
“Providence played a great game,” said Seton Hall’s Fuquan Edwin, who finished with 20 points in what could have been his final college game, barring an NIT invitation. “They hit some tough shots. You know Cotton, he led his team. He handled the pressure we were throwing at them. We couldn’t get over the hump and make some tough shots. But games go like that sometimes.”
It went that way Friday night for the Friars, who are now off to the BIG EAST tournament title game, a trip no Providence team has made in 20 years. But Cooley, a Providence native, remembers it well.
“Sure I remember. I remember when Providence College played in that game,” Cooley said. “I think I was graduating from school and I was really happy for our city and our state. But that was then. This is a new era. This is a new BIG EAST and we’re really fortunate to be here because there are a lot of teams that would love to be sitting in this game and we’re one of the last ones standing.”
And now just one victory, Saturday night in Manhattan, packed Madison Square Garden, bright lights, big stage, sits between the Friars and that elusive second BIG EAST title.
“Going into this summer we built such a great chemistry,” Cotton said. “We have such a tight bond and we knew there was something special about this team. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was that was special. As the season continues for us, I think we’re starting to see it.”