Providence was a little late to the Big East Tournament Wednesday night.
Physically, the Friars were there, but coach Ed Cooley saw something else when they took the court: hesitation, nerves and all those other little signs that can spell a tepid effort and an early exit.
They were down early to Butler, and when Cooley called his first timeout, the message was simple: Shoot your shot. And so they did. Over and over and over, all the way to an 80-57 win over the Bulldogs and a date with top-seeded Villanova on Thursday.
“I thought we were a little nervous, a little tight, a little antsy,” Cooley said, adding that he told his players to overcome their hesitation and shoot the open shot. “I was just proud of our guys. We were persistent and we imposed our will a little bit.”
Maliek White, who Cooley said “looked like Superman,” scored a game-high 19 points, and went 3-for-6 beyond the arc for a team that hit 11 threes. The Friars shot 51.9 percent, blocked five shots and outscored Butler 12-3 on the fast break.
The eighth-seeded Friars overcame an early 10-point deficit — the reason for the Cooley timeout — and led 38-27 at the break.
Providence (18-14) came in with the worst offense in the league — averaging 68.7 points — and the worst three-point percentage (29.3). But its rebounding and physicality have caused a problem for Butler, which it’s beaten three times in the last 16 days.
After scoring the first basket, the Friars had a five-minute drought, allowing Butler (16-16) to go up 10-2. The ninth-seeded Bulldogs took a 17-7 lead midway through the half, before the timeout and the resurgence. Nate Watson’s layup got things going, and A.J. Reeves’ three got Providence within 17-12. Alpha Diallo’s three-point play with 4:34 left in the half got the Friars within one, and David Duke’s three seconds later gave them their first lead since the opening basket.
White scored 13 in the first half after missing his first three shots. “My teammates gave me confidence,” he said. “I kept shooting and I was fortunate and it kept going in.”