In the final years of the old Big East, Ed Cooley quietly was building a Providence program around a core group of LaDontae Henton, Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts. Now, in the first season of the new Big East, the Friars have emerged behind the leadership of those three upperclassmen and sophomore Tyler Harris of Dix Hills.
For the first time in 20 years, Providence reached the Big East championship game with an 80-74 victory over Seton Hall Friday night at Madison Square Garden. In Saturday night's final, the Friars will meet Creighton, which defeated Xavier, 86-78, in the late semifinal.
Providence (22-11) came into the tourney on the NCAA bubble but almost certainly clinched a bid with the win. The Friars put together a 13-6 run that began with five points from Harris (17 points) and ended with two three-pointers from Henton (26 points, 14 rebounds) for a 64-53 lead. The Pirates (17-17) never got closer than four points with 10 seconds left in the game.
Cotton added 18 points and 10 assists and the Friars shot 47.4 percent from three-point range. Fuquan Edwin led Seton Hall with 20 points.
"We played with purpose," Cooley said. "We got Seton Hall's best shot today. Tyler got us going and LaDontae was a man-child today."
With Batts in foul trouble, Cooley had to play Henton, Cotton and Josh Fortune the full 40 minutes and Harris for 32 minutes. "It's a blessing to be here playing at the Garden," Harris said. Reaching the Big East final, he added, "was one of my dreams. I'm glad to be a part of Providence."
In 2011, Kemba Walker led Connecticut to five straight victories in the Big East Tournament before winning the NCAA title. The Pirates' ambitions weren't so grandiose, but they knew they needed to win four straight to take the conference tourney and earn an automatic NCAA bid. Their semifinal came on the heels of a quarterfinal upset of third-ranked and top-seeded Villanova on a buzzer-beater.
The Pirates took a 5-0 lead, but Providence later responded with a 21-6 run in which the Friars made 9 of 10 shots, including three three-pointers, for a 25-14 advantage. Henton had nine points in that span.
A 13-6 Seton Hall run that ended with a three-pointer from Brian Oliver cut the Pirates' halftime deficit to 38-34. The margin shrank to 46-45 on a three-pointer by Sterling Gibbs with 13:23 left in the game. Moments later, Harris sparked the run that broke open the game for Providence.
"I've been mentally prepared each game," said Harris, who scored 14 of his points in the second half. "I felt good in the second half. I was more comfortable and ready to shoot."