Thoroughly overcome by emotion after his team overcame a 17-point deficit to win in overtime, Providence coach Ed Cooley said, “God bless the Big East.”
What he did not say was that Providence is part of the heart and soul of the league, and one of the reasons it is what it is.
The fifth-seeded Friars added to their own and their conference’s legacy with a stirring stunner of a game Friday night, knocking off top-seeded Xavier, 75-72, lighting up Madison Square Garden with the force of their comeback and earning their third trip to the Big East Tournament final. Providence is 2-0 in conference championship games, having won in 1994 and 2014.
“We knew we were playing against arguably the best team in the country . . . and I’m really proud of the players who stepped up to the challenge,” Cooley said. “What a win for Providence College.”
No one stepped up to the challenge more than 5-11 senior Kyron Cartwright, who scored 15 points despite a terrible first half in which he shot 1-for-7. He took the game in his hands, at one point igniting a roar by driving through traffic and dunking. That brought the Friars within 64-62 and led to wild finishes in regulation and OT.
“The dunk, I’m speechless,” he said with a grin. “I don’t know what happened out there. It just happened.”
He also hit a jumper with 49.4 seconds left in overtime, giving his team a 73-70 lead.
Each side added two free throws — Providence’s were by Harlem native Alpha Diallo (17 points) with 5.7 seconds left — and the Friars (21-12) closed it out by preventing Xavier (28-5) from getting off a shot before the final buzzer.
“You only have so many last-second plays drawn up. And with no timeouts, it was certainly difficult to draw anything up that you feel comfortable with,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
Kerem Kanter, brother of Knicks center Enes Kanter, launched a shot that went through the net well after time had expired. He finished with 18 points.
“Winning this tournament was one of our goals. And it [expletive] that we’re not playing tomorrow,” Kanter said. “But I’m still glad we’ve got a lot more basketball to play.”
Xavier, the No. 3 team in the country, might have cost itself a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is a tribute to Providence.
When he was asked about 2014, Cooley acknowledged that Cartwright’s play was reminiscent of Bryce Cotton’s back then. “But he won a championship,” he said of Cotton, issuing a challenge to Cartwright.
Cartwright and teammates issued challenges to each other at halftime, when they were down 14. Freshman Makai Ashton-Langford, who did not play in the first 20 minutes, started the second half.
“I told him I needed him to help me because I didn’t have it going in that first half,” Cartwright said. “Without his driving to the basket and making plays early in the half, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I was able to do at the end.”
The freshman said, “He was just telling me we need a spark, we need a spark on offense and defense.”
His team gave this whole tournament a spark. As Cooley said, “What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league.”
’Nova cruises. Villanova reached its fourth consecutive Big East final, storming to a 19-0 start against Butler and rolling to an 87-68 victory. Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, for the No. 2-ranked Wildcats (29-4), who will play Providence on Saturday.