March 16, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
Saturday night was supposed to be the final chapter in Doug McDermott's Excellent New York Adventure.
After two superlative efforts in Creighton's victories over DePaul and Xavier in the quarterfinals and semis of the BIG EAST tournament, the script called for a command performance in the final against Providence, then have McDermott ride off toting the championship hardware from his one and only BIG EAST tournament, ready to slay his next dragon in the NCAA tournament.
It was to be the perfect ending to McDermott's New York story.
But lost in all the hoopla surrounding McDermott and Creighton was another great story, one of an underdog team that came into Madison Square Garden looking for a win or two to bolster its NCAA tournament resume. A team that was looking to bring home the BIG EAST trophy to Providence for the first time in 20 years. A team that just said, "Why not us?"
Why not indeed.
On a night when McDermott still went off for 27 points, Providence coach Ed Cooley's decision to throw a zone defense at one of the nation's premier 3-point shooting teams paid off handsomely as the Bluejays shot just 26.7% from behind the arc, and Friars' senior guard Bryce Cotton stole the limelight by scoring 16 of his 23 points in the second half - many of those coming in clutch situations - as Providence made the college basketball world take notice with their 65-58 victory in the BIG EAST championship game before a crowd of 15,290 at the Garden. It was the Friars second BIG EAST title and first since 1994.
Cotton was named the recipient of the Dave Gavitt Trophy for Most Outstanding Player while McDermott, who scored 94 points in Creighton's three tournament games, was named to the All-Tournament Team.
"It feels great," said Cotton, the freshly cut net from the championship basket draped around his neck. "Given everything that this team has been through, obstacles we faced, for us to reach this moment now, we're just going to cherish this moment for the time being."
It was mentioned to Cooley that throwing a zone at such a deadly three-point shooting outfit was a risky proposition. So why did he do it?
"Because I'm crazy," Cooley deadpanned. "It was a gut feel as a coach and our players bought into it. I think if your players believe it then you should execute it."
And execute the Friars did. It was a given that McDermott, fifth on the NCAA all-time scoring list with 3,105 points, was going to get his points, and he did. But Cooley's zone so frustrated and stifled the other Creighton marksmen that the rest of the team shot just 11-for-30 from the field and a paltry 3-of-18 on threes. Cooley's master plan had had its desired effect on the Bluejays.
"They did a good job. That zone was tough," McDermott said. "I don't think we were really expecting zone. I thought we were kind of panicking almost to start the game and rushing stuff and not making the extra passes. Got to give them credit, that zone kind of threw us off to start the game."
And while the Bluejays struggled - their 17 first-half points was a season-low for Creighton this year - Providence built a nine-point lead at intermission that swelled to 12 points (43-31) with 13:31 to play after a three-pointer by Josh Fortune and again at 47-35 a little over a minute later courtesy of a Cotton layup.
But with what seemed like half the population of Omaha I the stands urging a Creighton comeback, the Bluejays obliged and when McDermott drilled his fifth and final 3 of the game, the Providence lead had shrunk to 58-56 with 1:17 to play as the blue-clad Nebraskans in the Garden roared their approval.
But with the pressure building on the Friars, LaDontae Henton responded with the game's most pivotal bucket when he dropped in a short jumper from just to the left of the foul line with 45.6 seconds to play for a four-point Providence lead. Henton then sank a pair of free throws with 29.7 second remaining for a 62-56 cushion and the party was just about to get started for the Friars.
"When you score the ball and your teammates believe in you and they put you in spots to score the ball, you just want to come through for them," said Henton, who finished with nine points and was also named to the All-Tournament team. "It was a tough night and a big game at Madison Square Garden. I just wanted to make the shot."
Minutes later, when the final horn sounded, a party 20 years in the making tipped off. Providence players ran to the student section to celebrate before running back on to the court to don their championship hats and shirts. There were nets to cut down and family members to hug.
And for the man who everyone thought was crazy for his defensive choice, there was nothing but sincere gratitude in knowing he was bringing a title back to his hometown.
"I want to say how proud I am to stand here as the head basketball coach of Providence College," Cooley said. "I also want to say how tough it was to play an unbelievable team in Creighton and Coach (Greg) McDermott's team. They deserve a lot of applause and credit. Those kids are hard to play against. Very, very hard to coach against (because) he has interchangeable pieces and, in my opinion, the best player in college basketball. He is an amazing, amazing player."
The feeling of respect was mutual from the Creighton side.
"Although I hate to lose a game like this, if I have to lose, losing to someone like Ed Cooley is as good as it could possibly be," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
BIG EAST All-Tournament Team
Bryce Cotton, Providence - Dave Gavitt Trophy Winner as Most Outstanding Player
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Austin Chatman, Creighton
LaDontae Henton, Providence
Eugene Teague, Seton Hall
Semaj Christon, Xavier