Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports

Providence stuns Xavier to advance to Big East championship game

WEEI
March 09, 2018 - 11:36 pm

By John Rooke

Hope you didn’t turn that one off early.

If you did, you might have missed one for the ages.  Big East regular season champ and top-seed Xavier flexed its sizeable muscle early and often against the Providence Friars Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York.  But one thing they couldn’t do, was shut the Friars down for 40 minutes.

Or 45, either.

For the second straight night, PC came roaring back in the second half and forced overtime – this time in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament against a likely #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament – and beat the Musketeers 75-72.  For the Friars, it’s the first time in the 91-year history of the basketball program to beat three Top 5-ranked teams in the same season (Xavier twice, and Villanova).

It’s also the 3rd time Providence will play for a Big East Tournament championship, Saturday night at the World’s Most Famous Arena.  The Friars are 2-0 in their other finals’ appearances, in 1994 and 2014.

“What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league,” Ed Cooley said after watching his team work extra time for a second straight night.  “I was really proud of our young kids in the second half, we made a really bold move we haven’t done before because we had to change the rhythm of the game.”

That bold move paid off with a major dividend in the end.  Down 43-29 at halftime with Xavier seemingly getting all they wanted on offense, Cooley inserted Worcester freshman guard Makai Ashton-Langford into the starting lineup for the 2nd half – after not playing at all in the first.  Langford sparked some quickness into the Friar offense, and the defense also responded by shutting down the Musketeers’ sharp-shooters.

“A big move we made was putting Makai in the game to give us another ball handler, another slasher, a really good defender,” Cooley explained.  The move also allowed senior guard Kyron Cartwright to play more off the ball on offense. And Cartwright’s aggressive moves to the basket keyed a 20-7 Providence run midway through the period, pulling PC into the game after trailing by as much as 17 with 15:20 left.

The Friars managed to climb back within two points at 59-57 with 6:57 remaining, before Xavier went back up by five following a J.P. Macura layup.  A 7-2 Providence run from this point, however, pulled PC into a 66-66 tie after Rodney Bullock hit two free throws with 1:00 left.

Sean O’Mara’s hook shot with :35 seconds left put X back up by two, only to have Cartwright knock down two huge free throws with :12 seconds on the clock, and a missed attempt from Trevon Bluiett – blocked by Bullock – at the buzzer sent the game to an extra 5:00.

In the overtime, the Friars took the lead for good on an Alpha Diallo jumper at 71-70, and the Providence defense – not particular good in the first half – held the Musketeers to just one field goal in the extra session.   Overall, PC’s defense put a choke-hold on Xavier, limiting X to 9-for-33 from the floor in the second half and OT.

The offense, which has ground to a halt in several instances this season at crucial times, didn’t stall this time…hitting 18-of-34 during the same time frame.

And it’s the Friars playing for a Big East championship Saturday night at MSG, not the regular season champs.

“We had a moment when we had to hold each other accountable,” Cartwright told the media.  “It’s something we didn’t do early in the year…we picked on some people, we started yelling at each other.  But we didn’t take it personal and that was a big thing for us.

“We knew we had to pick up each other up at the same time and bring that intensity,” Cartwright added.  “And I think that helped us tonight.”

Indeed, it did.  And it puts the Friars in position for a shot at a Big East title.  Just don’t turn it off early Saturday night – you might miss out.

FRIAR NOTES

Providence was led by four players in double figures, including 17 from Alpha Diallo and Rodney Bullock, 15 from Cartwright and 14 from freshman Nate Watson, who turned in a superlative effort inside against Xavier’s strong front court.  The Friars are the second team in Big East Tournament history to win back-to-back overtime games, following Syracuse’s heroic performance in the 2009 event…PC is also the first #5 seed to reach the finals since 2013, when Syracuse lost to Louisville in the title game.  The last 5-seed to claim the title was Syracuse, beating Georgetown in 1992…the rally from 14 down at the half is tied for the third biggest comeback in tournament history.  Xavier lost for the first time this season (now 23-1) when holding an opponent to less than 80 points for the game…PC’s championship shot will begin with pregame coverage on 103.7 WEEI-FM, friars.com and the TuneIn app at 6:10 pm ET Saturday, with the tip from MSG slated for 6:30.