New York Colleges: Big East

Seems like old times in the new Big East

March, 16, 2014
Mar 16

NEW YORK -- The new Big East has an old-school champ.

Providence, one of the conference’s seven original members, turned back the clock and No. 14 Creighton on Saturday, winning the 2014 Big East tournament championship game 65-58.

The Friars are off the bubble and into the Big Dance, for the first time since 2004.

“First, I want to say how proud I am to stand here as the head basketball coach of Providence College,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “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.

“It took a brave effort from us to get over the hump.”

Providence authored a near-masterpiece defensively against one of the best offensive teams in the country. Creighton has the leading scorer and best 3-point shooting team in all of Division I, yet had a season-low 17 points at halftime and trailed by nine.

[+] EnlargeBryce Cotton
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBryce Cotton and Providence celebrated the Friars' first Big East championship since 1994.
The Friars employed a smothering 2-3 zone that forced Doug McDermott and company into contested looks from beyond the arc, and the result was a 1-for-12 performance from deep in the first 20 minutes.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with our play in the first half,” Greg McDermott said. “I didn’t think our ball movement, our spacing against their zone wasn’t where it needed to be.”

“I don’t think we were really expecting zone,” Doug McDermott said. “I thought we were kind of panicking almost to start the game, and rushing stuff and not making the extra passes.”

Cooley decided to switch things up after Creighton put a 45-spot on Providence in the first half just one week ago in Omaha, in the teams’ regular season finale, en route to an 88-73 victory.

“Everybody thought we were crazy probably trying to play one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country [with a] zone,” Cooley said. “But because of Dougie, you always have to have a man and a half around him -- and you know, he almost pulled it off.”

McDermott did hit his average (26.9 ppg) with 27 points, 18 of them coming in the second half. His 3-pointer with 1:17 remaining cut Providence’s lead, which was once 12, to two, 58-56.

But the Friars whittled down the shot clock on the ensuing possession, as they had all game long to control the tempo. And then Providence forward LaDontae Henton made the biggest shot of the game -- a pull-up jumper with 45 seconds left to make it 60-56. They closed out the win at the foul line.

Henton finished with nine points and 13 rebounds, making the all-tournament team. But senior guard Bryce Cotton was the MVP, scoring a team-high 23 points, 16 of them in the second half.

“It’s just a vindicating feeling to know that the Providence Friars are Big East champions,” Cotton said. “This is something our school and our city hasn’t seen in a long time. For us to finally bring that back home, that’s top of the list.”

Creighton’s spot in the NCAA tournament was already secure. The Bluejays (26-7, 14-4) were projected to be a No. 3 seed entering Saturday’s game.

Providence (23-11, 10-8), on the other hand, was still viewed as a bubble team, despite advancing to the championship game -- and despite the opinion of its head coach.

“If somebody asks me about the bubble, I’m going to yell at you,” Cooley said, eliciting laughter in the press room. “That bubble was popped probably a couple games ago.”

The Friars are in automatically now, but this victory means much more than an NCAA tournament bid. Providence has been part of the Big East since its inception in 1979, yet had only won the conference tournament once, in 1994.

In fact, the 1993-94 Friars -- coached by Rick Barnes and featuring future pros Eric Williams, Michael Smith, Dickey Simpkins and Austin Croshere -- were the only team in school history to even advance to the championship game.

Cooley is well aware of that history, being a Providence, R.I., native himself.

“I remember where I was sitting. I remember where I was standing. I remember being so excited for Providence College,” Cooley said. “And I’ve got to pinch myself as I sit here right now.”

The ’93-94 team was the No. 4 seed in the Big East tournament. This team was the No. 4 seed as well, and was picked to finish just sixth in the preseason -- and that was before losing starting point guard Kris Dunn after just four games due to a shoulder injury, and the season-long suspensions of touted freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock.

Cooley has done one of the best coaching jobs in the country this year, playing with essentially five starters and one sub, as he did in Saturday night’s championship game. Cotton, Henton, guard Josh Fortune and forward Tyler Harris all played 40 minutes.

“We just believe in each other,” Henton said. “Can’t nobody stop us but us -- that’s the motto we came into the season believing. No matter how many guys we had to play with, we were going to go out there with the toughest group of guys and battle each night.”

They’ll be a tough out in the NCAA tournament, that’s for sure. But if and when the Friars lose in the Big Dance, they’ll still have something special to celebrate, and remember.

“It feels great,” Cotton said, with the Madison Square Garden net around his neck. “Given everything that this team has gone through, all the adversity, obstacles we faced, for us to reach this moment now, we’re just going to cherish this moment.”

“I am so, so thrilled to be called a Big East champion,” Cooley said.

That still means something. And no one can ever take that away.

Seton Hall loses, Cinderalla run ends

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
NEW YORK -- Seton Hall gave the new Big East its first big moment Thursday.

It couldn’t pull off another one.

Playing in the Big East tournament semifinals for the first time since 2001, the Pirates fell short against Providence, 80-74.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mobley
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBrandon Mobley and Seton Hall couldn't continue their Big East tournament run.
The Friars further enhanced their NCAA tournament résumé, while Seton Hall’s sudden chance to steal an NCAA bid was snuffed out.

“We just got to give credit when credit is due,” said Seton Hall senior Fuquan Edwin, who scored a team-high 20. “Providence played a great game. ... They hit some tough shots.”

The Pirates were playing their third game in three days, thanks to their eighth-place finish in the regular season, and it may have caught up with them. Providence, which finished tied for third and bypassed the first round, looked like the quicker team on the glass and on the floor for loose balls.

An early 12-0 run put the Friars in front, 25-14, as Seton Hall went scoreless for more than five minutes.

Brian Oliver's 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer cut it to 38-34, and the Pirates clawed to within one, 46-45, on a Sterling Gibbs 3-pointer with 13:23 left. But they never regained the lead.

They never quit, either. Down nine with under 20 seconds left, Seton Hall managed to cut it to four, 78-74. And Edwin could have made it 78-76, after Providence’s Bryce Cotton was whistled for an offensive foul. But Edwin missed a layup in traffic with eight seconds to go, which was the last straw.

“I’m very sad,” Edwin said. “I wish we could have pulled through with the win. It would have been good playing in the championship game. I just want to give credit to our effort. I think we battled hard.”

Seton Hall finishes the season with a record of 17-17. Despite two wins in New York this week, the Pirates are unlikely to receive an NIT bid, and coach Kevin Willard said he would decline an invitation to the other postseason tournaments (CBI, CIT) because of injury concerns.

Edwin has been playing with a bad thumb, and others are banged up as well.

“They’re good tournaments. They’re well-run,” Willard said. “But right now with my seniors where they are, getting [Edwin] healthy is my most -- my number one [priority].”

Willard has now failed to get Seton Hall into the NCAA tournament in his first four years on the job. But brighter days appear on the horizon, thanks to the impending arrival of guard Isaiah Whitehead and forward Angel Delgado, both ranked among the top 50 high school seniors in the country by ESPN.

Edwin and fellow senior starters Oliver and Eugene Teague won’t be around to see them, however.

“These guys, unfortunately, their win-loss record hasn’t been phenomenal, but over the last two years, they’ve provided a solid foundation for us to build on for the future,” Willard said. “These guys have been instrumental in helping us go from a very unstable situation to a pretty stable situation.”

That trio will never get to the Big Dance. But they’ll always have the memories from this week, especially that stunning upset of top seed Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals, on a buzzer-beater.

We won’t soon forget it, either.

Big East tourney drama alive and well

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

NEW YORK -- New Big East, same old Madness.

Less than 24 hours into the 2014 Big East tournament, we’ve already had two stunning upsets and lost the top seed.

On Wednesday night, Georgetown was defeated by DePaul for the first time in 20 years. On Thursday afternoon, No. 3-ranked Villanova fell to Seton Hall 64-63 on a buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs.

For Seton Hall, it’s the first win in school history against a team ranked in the top three in the Associated Press poll. The Pirates had been 0-30 against such teams.

[+] EnlargeSterling Gibbs
AP Photo/Seth WenigSeton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs proved the new Big East still has the same old flair for the dramatic with his game-winning shot against Villanova.
“It was a great college basketball game,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “They played better. They made the plays at the end.”

Seton Hall had just 15 hours to rest and prepare for Villanova following its 51-50 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.

Perhaps the short turnaround helped. Villanova trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half before scoring the final six to make it 34-26 at intermission. The Wildcats shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) and missed seven free throws in the first half.

A 16-0 Villanova run fueled by several open-court steals and scores put the Wildcats back in front with just more than eight minutes remaining. But the Pirates did not fold. The game came down to the final minute, when the lead changed hands four times.

Josh Hart's layup with 41 seconds to play put Villanova up 61-59. Freshman Jaren Sina buried a 3-pointer from the corner 20 seconds later to give Seton Hall a 62-61 lead.

Darrun Hilliard's floater in the lane rolled in with 11 seconds left, pushing the Wildcats back ahead 63-62. And then Gibbs hit the biggest shot of them all -- a step-back jumper from the top of the key as time expired.

“It was supposed to get in my hands, and I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself,” Gibbs said. “I just stepped back and hit the jumper.”

Seton Hall finished the regular season in eighth place in the 10-team Big East but has played nine games decided by a single point this season, going 4-5. The Pirates also have two three-point losses, one in overtime and the other in double overtime.

“One of the referees told me the other night, he said he’s never seen a team go through what we’ve gone through and still come back and play hard every night,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. “I just think it’s the character of these guys.”

The new Big East now has its first signature moment, and Seton Hall has a berth in the Big East tourney semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Pirates will play either No. 4 seed Providence or No. 5 seed St. John’s on Friday.

Seton Hall was swept by St. John's in the regular season, but both losses were by -- you guessed it! -- one point. The Pirates split with the Friars, winning by one in double overtime and then losing by five.

“I really thought if we could get past Butler, we could beat anybody,” Willard said. “I was really scared about getting past Butler. It’s a tough matchup for us. They defend really well on us, and I thought if we could get past them, we could get some momentum and just keep going.”

Villanova, whose three previous losses this season came against ranked teams Syracuse and Creighton (twice), is still projected to be a No. 1 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi -- as of now. But that could change as the rest of Championship Week unfolds.

“This was not about 1-seeds, 2-seeds,” Wright said. “This was about we wanted to come to Madison Square Garden and win the Big East tournament. Winning the Big East tournament would mean much more to us than a 1-seed.

“This is a great tournament. We want to be here until Saturday. I think we’re more disappointed about that. The NCAA tournament seedings? My belief is 1, 2, 3 -- it doesn’t matter that much. You’re going to play great teams.”

W2W4: St. John's at Marquette

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
Here's what to watch for when St. John's (19-11, 9-8 Big East) plays Marquette (17-13, 9-8 Big East) on Saturday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Tip-off is at noon, and you can watch the game on Fox Sports 1.

Selection Saturday: Yes, we're still a week away from the NCAA tournament bracket being revealed, but this game will go a long way toward determining whether St. John's makes it.

A victory over Marquette would give St. John's 20 wins in the regular season, an above-.500 record in conference play, and a tie for third place with fellow bubble teams Xavier and Providence (if Providence loses at Creighton on Saturday). The Red Storm would face one of those two teams in the Big East quarterfinals, in what could amount to an NCAA tournament play-in game.

A loss to Marquette relegates St. John's to a .500 record in conference, and either sixth place or a tie for sixth with Georgetown. If the Hoyas win at Villanova on Saturday, the Red Storm would have to play a first-round Big East game and then face Creighton in the quarterfinals. Either way, they would have to advance all the way to the Big East championship game to even sniff an at-large bid.

St. John's will be back at full strength, with the return of Rysheed Jordan. The question is, will Jordan start and how will he play in the wake of his family tragedy? He has been a huge part of the team's success down the stretch, scoring in double figures in seven of his past 10 games.

Big battle: It has been a roller coaster of a season for St. John's center Chris Obekpa. He was a major factor defensively in November and early December, disappeared for a stretch in January, and has re-emerged with several excellent performances the past few weeks.

Obekpa is not leading the country in blocked shots per game, as he did last year as a freshman (4.0). But he is among the top 15 -- currently 12th (3.1).

Coach Steve Lavin could really use another big performance from Obekpa on Saturday. Marquette senior forward Davante Gardner, the team's leading scorer (14.9 ppg), is a handful inside to say the least -- 6-foot-8, 290 pounds. If Obekpa can contain Gardner, that'll go a long way toward securing a victory.

Obekpa was very good in the first meeting of these teams -- a 74-59 St. John's victory at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1 -- with seven points, seven rebounds and seven blocked shots. Gardner had only 10 points and three rebounds. But Obekpa must avoid foul trouble -- he had four fouls in that game and played only 21 minutes.

The Golden Eagles: Marquette has the same conference record as St. John's but a slimmer chance of getting into the NCAA tournament at this point. Its RPI ranking (68) is slightly worse than St. John's (62), its BPI ranking (69) is significantly worse than St. John's (48), and it is 0-7 against top-25 opponents. (St. John's is 1-5.)

The Golden Eagles had a golden opportunity to boost their stock with a win at fellow bubble resident Providence on Tuesday but lost a heartbreaker in double overtime, 81-80. St. John's is listed as the sixth team on the outside looking in, according to the latest edition of's Bracketology, published Thursday. Marquette is not even listed among the first eight, which is as far as ESPN expert Joe Lunardi goes.

Two other players average in double figures, in addition to Gardner -- 6-7 senior forward Jamil Wilson (11.8 ppg, team-high 5.9 rpg) and 6-3 junior guard Todd Mayo (10.7 ppg).

Marquette is better on defense than offense -- 88th in Division I in defensive field-goal percentage (41.8) but only 181st in offensive field-goal percentage (44.1). In the first meeting, Marquette had a 21-10 edge on the offensive glass, but St. John's was plus-11 on blocked shots (12-1). D'Angelo Harrison scored 27 points, shooting 6-for-11 from beyond the arc.

Rapid Reaction: Xavier 65, St. John's 53

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
NEW YORK -- Some quick thoughts on St. John's' 65-53 loss to Xavier on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: Xavier moved one step closer to the NCAA tournament, and St. John's moved one step closer to the NIT.

In a tilt between two teams jockeying for position in the Big East and for the Big Dance, the Musketeers earned a season sweep of the Red Storm, meaning they'd almost certainly get the nod come Selection Sunday if both are on the bubble.

St. John's drops to 18-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big East. Xavier improves to 19-9 overall and 9-6 in the conference.

The turning point: It was a tight first half -- neither team led by more than five. Things grew chippy near the end -- on the final possession, St. John's guard Rysheed Jordan and Xavier guard Semaj Christon got tangled up, and both were whistled for a technical foul after the final buzzer. Xavier led by just one, 31-30, despite shooting 56 percent from the field (14-for-25).

With Xavier still leading by just one, 39-38, the Musketeers took control with a 10-1 run -- capped off by a Jalen Reynolds 3-point play -- to make it 49-39 with 7:19 remaining. St. John's closed to within four points on three separate occasions after that but could get no closer. The Musketeers finished the victory off at the foul line.

Star watch: Jakarr Sampson led St. John's with 14 points. Jordan and Orlando Sanchez each scored 11 points off the bench. D'Angelo Harrison tied a season low with just four points, shooting 1-for-11 from the field.

Reynolds, a freshman, had a monster game off the bench for Xavier -- 17 points and 16 rebounds, both career highs.

Number crunch: St. John's shot just 36.7 percent from the field (22-for-60), 12.5 percent from beyond the arc (2-for-16) and 53.8 percent from the foul line (7-for-13). And the Red Storm had zero fast break points in 40 minutes, which is hard to believe.

What's next: St. John's hosts DePaul on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Xavier hosts No. 9 Creighton on Saturday.

St. John's climbs to .500 in Big East

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
NEWARK, N.J. -- If St. John’s wins in The Rock and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but the buzz about the Red Storm will only increase after their 68-67 win at Seton Hall on Thursday -- even if just a couple hundred fans were in the building to witness it due to a nasty nor’easter.

St. John’s (16-9) has climbed from 0-5 in the Big East to 6-6 in the span of just three weeks, and now practically anything seems possible.

St. John's logo“This team is a special bunch,” guard D’Angelo Harrison said, “and we’re finding ways to win.”

They found a way Thursday despite a brutal first half in which the team eclipsed its turnover average (10.2) with 11 in just 20 minutes. Seton Hall had a 9-3 advantage on the offensive glass, a 14-5 edge in second-chance points, and led 38-33 at the break -- despite being without two starters, swingman Brian Oliver and power forward Gene Teague, who were suspended by coach Kevin Willard for attitude problems.

St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said it was the worst his team had looked since their first half at Georgetown on Jan. 4, when the Red Storm trailed 42-16 at intermission.

“It was a group of zombies that I didn’t recognize,” Lavin said, “because for over a month now we’ve been in a really good way and on a good path of progress and playing together as a team.”

St. John’s played better in the second half, but the game was still tied at 67 in the final minute. Seton Hall guard Fuquan Edwin, who scored a game-high 25 points, missed a decent look from the top of the key with 27 seconds remaining.

“I’ll live and die with Fu taking shots,” Willard said. “He’s a heck of a player, he’s giving all his effort. He’s been shooting 42 percent from the 3. It was good defense by them.”

The winning point came at the foul line -- from Chris Obekpa, of all people. A fitting end to a strange night.

Big East logoSt. John’s ran the clock down, with the chance to take the last shot in regulation. Harrison, the team's leading scorer, was the primary option, naturally. But Obekpa was open in the lane after setting a screen for Harrison, and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan hit Obekpa with a pinpoint pass. A 40.7 percent free throw shooter, Obekpa made one of two from the foul line, and then St. John’s intercepted a long baseball pass to seal the victory.

“He’s as exceptional a passer as any player I’ve coached, for this stage of a career,” Lavin said, of Jordan. “The judgments, the precision is first-rate.”

It was fitting that Jordan and Obekpa teamed up for the game-winning play, because the improved performance of those two players has been the key to the Red Storm’s resurgence. Each scored 10 points in the game, two of four St. John’s players in double figures. Harrison led the way with 12, and Sir’Dominic Pointer also scored 10 off the bench.

It was yet another balanced effort, from a team clicking on all cylinders right now -- Thursday’s first half notwithstanding.

St. John’s notched its first road win versus Seton Hall in 16 years, and is now firmly in the NCAA tournament at-large bid conversation, despite a hellish start to conference play.

“I’d put this group up there with as special as any that I’ve worked with,” Lavin said, “because of their resiliency, their pluck, their spirit, their fight-back, their gumption.”

Next up is a rematch with Georgetown on Sunday -- a chance for redemption, against a team that handed St. John’s its worst loss of the season six weeks ago.

“[Getting to] .500 is still not good enough for us,” Harrison said. “We gotta get past this game and get ready for Georgetown [on] Sunday. That’s a big game.”

They’re all big now, thanks to this remarkable three-week run -- capped off by a gutty victory in a nearly empty Prudential Center.

For St. John's, it's getting late early

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
NEW YORK -- An underachieving St. John’s team hit a new low Thursday night in Queens.

The Red Storm lost at Carnesecca Arena for the first time this season, dropping their fifth straight to open Big East play, 84-83 to the Providence Friars in double overtime.

The spring semester at St. John’s doesn’t begin until next week, which is a good thing. The students would have filed out of here heartbroken or angry, or both.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsSteve Lavin finds his Johnnies 0-5 in the Big East after Thursday's home loss against Providence.
The Red Storm did rally from a 13-point first-half deficit, but that should be little consolation. St. John’s had the last shot in regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime, and failed to convert each time.

Nevertheless, coach Steve Lavin put a positive spin on things after the game.

"Naturally, we’re disappointed with the outcome," Lavin said. "But I felt the team really competed."

"I thought the kids played in a very cohesive fashion, and they fought their fannies off for 50 minutes," he added. "Just really proud of this group of young men."

After St. John’s scored the first two points of the game, Providence rattled off 14 straight, leading to a Lavin timeout. Forward Sir'Dominic Pointer, the lone St. John’s player made available to the media after the game, said he and his teammates felt the pressure of their 0-4 start in the conference.

"We were too anxious," Pointer said. "Everybody was uptight. We were missing open shots, layups at the beginning of the game."

Lavin agreed with Pointer’s assessment. "It’s really a good sign," the coach said. "It’s a healthy sign, because it means it’s a group that cares."

St. John’s whittled the Providence lead to seven at halftime, 36-29, and took its first lead since the opening minute, 65-63, with 3:07 remaining. But with the game tied at 67 in the final seconds of regulation, Orlando Sanchez missed an open jumper from the top of the key.

The Red Storm again had the final possession in the first overtime. With the scored tied at 77, D'Angelo Harrison penetrated, lost the ball, recovered it, then missed an awkward look from the corner.

St. John’s took a four-point lead in the second overtime, 83-79, on a Harrison layup with 1:35 remaining, but they blew the game from there. After Providence’s Tyler Harris drained a pair of free throws to cut it to 83-82 with 25.6 seconds left, St. John’s inbounded the ball to reserve Max Hooper, who allowed himself to get tied up, with the possession arrow favoring Providence.

[+] EnlargeSt Johns/Providence
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Providence's Bryce Cotton, right, torched the Johnnies for a game-high 21 points.
Providence’s Bryce Cotton made a runner in the lane and was fouled with 9.8 seconds left, putting the Friars back in front, 84-83. Cotton missed the ensuing free throw and St. John’s got the rebound, but Phil Greene IV's layup attempt in traffic at the final second was off the mark.

"It was perfect," Lavin said of Greene’s final shot. "That was the one we wanted. … That alone was growth, even though we didn’t get the payoff of a win."

Yes, St. John’s competed in this game. Yes, the team fought. But there was certainly nothing perfect about this performance and little, if any, growth.

The Red Storm fell behind early, as they’ve done seemingly all season long. They didn’t convert late, despite having multiple chances to win the game. And they made critical mistakes, none bigger than the Hooper jump ball.

Why wasn’t Hooper tougher with the ball and more aware of the situation? Furthermore, why was he even in the game?

"Jakarr [Sampson] got a leg cramp, so, unfortunately, bad timing he couldn’t go. That’s why we initially subbed [in Hooper]," Lavin said. “And then on the last possession, we knew they were gonna foul, so we were just putting our best shooter in the game."

Yes, Hooper can shoot, but the Harvard transfer is awfully inexperienced. And had only taken four free throws on the season, making just two.

Some people say St. John’s talent was overrated at the start of the season. Some say the coach isn’t doing a good job.

It looked like a little bit of both Thursday night.

"Once we get a good win and get back on the winning track, I think we’re gonna shoot right off," Pointer said. "Our season is nowhere near over. It’s just beginning."

If only that were true.

Smith, Southerland leave proud NYC touch

March, 17, 2013
NEW YORK -- When the final horn sounded -- when the comeback was complete, when the championship was secured -- Russ Smith made a beeline for the TV camera, wagging his right index finger in front of his face.

New Yorkers like the spotlight, and Smith is no exception.

The spotlight couldn't have been brighter at Madison Square Garden this week, particularly Saturday night, as we all said goodbye to the Big East conference as we know it.

It was only fitting that two New York City kids were among the brightest stars on the stage.

Smith had scored a combined 48 points in Louisville’s quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Villanova and Notre Dame, respectively.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesRuss Smith scored 10 points on 2-of-8 shooting but left with a second straight tourney title.
James Southerland had poured in 53 in the three wins that landed Syracuse in the championship game.

An undersized two-guard from Brooklyn and an oversized three-man from Queens, Smith and Southerland figured to play prominent roles in the tournament finale.

And they did.

Southerland struck first -- and made history in the process. The 6-foot-8 senior with the smooth stroke from the perimeter drained his first 3-point attempt of the game, less than three minutes in, giving Syracuse an early 6-0 lead.

It was Southerland’s 17th 3-ball of the week, breaking the record held by former Syracuse guard and current assistant coach Gerry McNamara, as well as former Connecticut guard Albert Mouring.

Southerland hit another one from deep before halftime, and his third triple of the game gave Syracuse its largest lead, 45-29, with 15:51 remaining. He appeared to be on his way to garnering tournament MVP honors.

Seventeen seconds later, he headed to the bench with his fourth foul, and everything changed.

Smith, on the other hand, was practically invisible in the first half. The 6-foot dynamo shot 0-for-4 from the field, collecting just two points from the foul line. But you figured he’d find a way to get involved in the second half.

It didn’t take long. He connected on his first attempt after intermission, from beyond the arc. And when Louisville scored 10 consecutive points following Southerland’s fourth foul, Smith was involved as well, canning another trey.

The Cardinals eventually surged to the lead, thanks to their smothering full-court pressure. The Orange wilted, at both handling the ball and shooting free throws. The game, shockingly, turned into a rout in Louisville’s favor.

Smith, who finished with 10 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds, was emotional after the game. He has been playing all week in honor of former high school coach, the legendary Jack Curran, who passed away days earlier at age 82.

“It’s been just a roller-coaster ride. Especially since the loss of a guy like that, it’s had a tremendous effect on me,” Smith said. “But wining this tournament cured a lot of the sadness I had, and I’m playing in his name.”

Southerland, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds, lamented what might have been.

[+] EnlargeJames Southerland
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesJames Southerland had 9 points and 8 rebounds but also 4 turnovers in Syracuse's defeat.
“I just feel like we kind of made it -- we didn't make some smart plays at the end,” Southerland said. “We didn't take advantage of our lead and move the ball around like we should have.”

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was thrilled for Smith, and the rest of his team.

“I’m really excited for them that they can be part of basketball history,” Pitino said. “I’m really happy that the basketball history took place at Madison Square Garden. And I’m really excited we could do it in (Big East founder) Dave Gavitt’s memory, and now Jack Curran’s for Russ Smith. It meant a lot for Russ to play well, and he certainly did.”

This was the 34th Big East tournament, and the 31st played at Madison Square Garden. There will be a Big East, and a Big East tournament, next season -- but we all know it’ll never be quite the same.

St. John’s, the city’s team, won the first Big East tourney played at the Garden, back in 1983. But the Red Storm haven’t played in the championship game since 2000, and were eliminated from this tournament on the first full day.

Someone had to step up to represent the five boroughs.

In the end, two did the job.

The 2013 Big East tournament will be remembered for the classic Syracuse-Georgetown semifinal, and the stunning Louisville comeback in the title game.

But this New Yorker, raised on Big East basketball, will also never forget James Southerland and Russ Smith.

They might not be superstars. Far greater players have played on this stage.

But they were the final act. And they did their hometown proud.

Rapid Reaction: Louisville 78, Syracuse 61

March, 16, 2013

NEW YORK -- Reaction from Louisville's 78-61 victory over Syracuse in the Big East tournament title game.

What it means: The Big East went out with a bang.

In the final game before the conference splinters, Louisville made a stunning comeback to defeat Syracuse and win the Big East tournament for the second year in a row.

The Cardinals (29-5, 14-4), the regular season co-champions along with Georgetown and Marquette, have won 10 games in a row. Louisville is now a virtual lock to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicts the Cardinals will be the No. 1 overall seed in the entire field.

The Orange (26-9, 11-7), who had lost four of five to end the regular season, won three games here in New York, but this will be a tough one to get over. Syracuse was projected to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament by Lunardi prior to the championship game.

The turning point: Syracuse took control of this game early. C.J. Fair and James Southerland opened the game with 3-pointers, and the Orange went in front 8-0. Louisville closed to within two, 17-15, on a pair of Peyton Siva free throws. But the Orange outscored the Cardinals 18-7 the rest of the first half. Fair hit another trey with 50 seconds remaining and Siva scored in the closing seconds to make it 35-22 at intermission.

Syracuse took its largest lead of the game, 45-29, on another Southerland trey with 15:51 remaining. Seventeen seconds later, Southerland headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. The game completely turned from there. Louisville scored 10 straight points to get back in it and just kept on coming, even after Southerland returned. The Orange completely melted under the Cardinals' swarming pressure defense, and they were terrible from the foul line. Syracuse went more than 11 minutes without a field goal, and Louisville outscored them 56-26 in the second half.

Star watch: Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell, who was averaging just 5.2 points in 16.3 minutes per game, poured in a game-high 20 points -- 14 of them coming in the second half. He also had seven rebounds. Siva added 11 points and eight assists, and Russ Smith chipped in 10. Gorgui Dieng had a near triple-double -- 9 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.

Fair, after a woeful 3-for-16 shooting night in the semifinals, scored a game-high 21 points for Syracuse, shooting 7-for-10. Michael Carter-Williams had 11 points and nine assists. Southerland finished with nine points, on three treys, and set a new Big East tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers.

Number crunch: Syracuse shot 12-for-26 from the foul line -- awful. And the Orange committed 20 turnovers, 13 of them coming in the second half. Louisville outscored Syracuse on points off turnovers, 32-11.

What's next: Selection Sunday, and the NCAA tournament.

Louisville gets chance to leave final stamp

March, 16, 2013
NEW YORK -- This last run of the Big East tournament as we know it has been all about the old teams, the stalwarts from the league’s beginning either moving on or rebuilding the league in its own original image.

Except a funny thing has happened while everyone has been mourning the past and wondering about the future: A young'un from the Big East, a whippersnapper if you will, is taking its share of the last rays of the spotlight.

Louisville, born into the Big East in 2005 and set to expire in 2014, beat Notre Dame 69-57 on Friday night to advance to the Big East tournament final. The Cardinals, the relative newbies, will take on Big East original Syracuse in what, thanks to the twisted world of conference realignment, will be an ACC game in two years.

That makes four appearances in the final game in New York in the past five years for the Cardinals, a run that is rare for anyone in this brutal league and unprecedented among the current nouveau riche of the team roster.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva had 7 steals and 6 assists to go along with his 12 points in Friday's win.
“I honestly don’t know why it is," coach Rick Pitino said. “I know we put a lot of emphasis on it. It means a lot to us, and at this time of the season we allow them to take some chances offensively, to not be conservative. I think that helps. But maybe it’s just because it means a lot."

It’s interesting that it’s Pitino who is orchestrating this new-kid-on-the-block run.

He is seen now as a pillar of the league, but back when, he was just a kid coach trying to prove his worth. This is where he did it, cutting his teeth at Providence. He was a young interloper -- so young that plenty of the coaches he was going up against tried to recruit him. They were the Mount Rushmore of the profession, he the unproven rookie.

Pitino held his own in meetings -- memorably going toe-to-toe with Rollie Massimino in one that still ranks in the story files -- and held his own on the court, too, taking the Friars to the Final Four in 1987.

So in a lot of ways, his team’s run here is a lot like his own. The Cardinals came into the Big East with plenty of name cachet thanks to the history carved by Denny Crum, but they were Southerners crashing the Yankee party, unknown entities who had to prove they could hang in a conference that prided itself on physical play.

And now here they are, playing in their eighth tournament, already trying to win their third title.

By any measure of history, those are pretty good numbers.

Asked what it’s like to "own the tournament," Peyton Siva smiled.

“I hope we own it tomorrow,’’ the Louisville guard said. “Coach really pushes us to bring our game up to a higher level. Throughout the year, we’re still trying to figure out our defenses and our offenses. We work so hard and condition so much that these three days are just like three days of practice. We’re used to it."

For Louisville on Saturday, this game will be about more than just sweet nostalgia. The Cardinals are in position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- with Duke’s loss to Maryland, they might already have locked one up -- but this entire week has been about memory lane and sentiment.

It’s no different for the Cards.

Louisville will be in The Conference To Be Named Later for one more season before jumping ship to the ACC. Its attachment to the Big East isn’t quite as deep as that of the others who are leaving, but the Cardinals nonetheless can leave an indelible mark on the league.

“This is the last Big East tournament game to be played," Pitino said. “Whoever wins, they’re going to be the answer to a trivia question for a long, long time."

Rapid Reaction: Louisville 69, ND 57

March, 16, 2013

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Louisville Cardinals' 69-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to advance to the Big East tournament finals.

What it means: Louisville is one victory away from winning the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Notre Dame was eliminated in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (28-5) have now won nine straight games since losing to the Fighting Irish in that five-overtime classic back on Feb. 9. If Louisville wins Saturday, it almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9), ranked No. 24, heads home disappointed, but helped its cause by upsetting No. 12 Marquette in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Fighting Irish were projected to receive a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of's Bracketology.

This was also Notre Dame's final game as a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish will play in the ACC next season. Louisville will join them the following season.

The turning point: Peyton Siva nailed a 3-pointer on the very first possession of the game, Louisville went ahead by as many as seven, and led almost the entire first half. Notre Dame briefly tied the game at 22, on a Garrick Sherman bucket with 6:03 remaining. But the Cardinals outscored the Fighting Irish 10-3 the rest of the way. Luke Hancock drilled a trey from the corner before the buzzer, giving Louisville a 32-25 halftime lead.

Notre Dame drew within three points on three separate occasions early in the second half. And trailing 45-41 with 6:58 remaining, Eric Atkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, with a chance to cut the lead to two. The Fighting Irish drew no closer. The dagger was another Hancock 3-pointer with 4:09 left, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 55-44. Louisville put the game away from there.

Star watch: Russ Smith, who had 28 points in Louisville's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored 20 more on Friday to lead the Cardinals. Siva added 12, and he also had 6 assists and 7 steals. Gorgui Dieng had 8 points, 12 rebound and 4 blocked shots.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame.

Number crunch: Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers -- nine fewer than Villanova committed against Louisville on Thursday. But the Fighting Irish shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19-for-52), while Louisville shot 45.5 percent (25-for-55). It's the sixth consecutive contest the Cardinals have held their opponent under 40 percent. Louisville, arguably the best defensive team in the country, is on top of its game.

What's next: The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in this tournament, will play No. 5 seed Syracuse in the title game. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The Fighting Irish head back to South Bend and start preparing for the Big Dance.

Rapid Reaction: Cuse 58, G'town 55 (OT)

March, 15, 2013

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Syracuse's 58-55 overtime win over Georgetown in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

What it means: It doesn't get any better than that.

Georgetown and Syracuse, the two longtime archrivals, met one last time as fellow members of the Big East conference Friday night. And after 45 thrilling minutes, Syracuse had landed the final punch.

In a game that will be talked about for years to come, played in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, the Orange defeated the Hoyas to advance to this year's Big East championship game.

No. 19 Syracuse (26-8, 11-7), which had lost four of five games prior to tournament, has now won three games in three days, previously defeating Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. The Orange will be a higher seed in the NCAA tournament as a result. And they've gotten some revenge after losing to the Hoyas twice in the regular season -- both times by double digits.

No. 5 Georgetown (25-6, 14-4), which had won 13 of its past 14 games, will no longer contend for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance after this loss. But the Hoyas will still get a very high seed and will be a force to be reckoned with.

How it happened: Georgetown drew first blood. Otto Porter Jr. scored the first bucket of the game and the Hoyas went in front by as many as five and maintained the lead for almost the entire first 12 minutes. But a James Southerland 3-pointer pulled Syracuse even, 17 apiece, with 8:04 remaining in the first half. That was the first three points of a 13-0 run, making it 27-17, as Georgetown went nearly eight minutes without scoring a point. Freshman guard Trevor Cooney, who averaged 3.5 points in 11.7 minutes per game, scored 10 first-half points for the Orange, including a pair of 3s. Syracuse led 29-20 at intermission.

Georgetown gradually clawed its way back in the second half. Mikael Hopkins scored the Hoyas' first seven points, and then Markel Starks buried three 3-pointers in short order. Georgetown finally tied the game up, 49 all with 1:48 left in regulation, on a pair of Jabril Trawick free throws. Baye Keita drained both ends of a 1-and-1 to put Syracuse back in front 51-49, but then Porter also made both ends with 7 seconds left to tie the game again. Michael Carter-Williams missed a jumper at the buzzer and we moved on to overtime.

Syracuse's Brandon Triche scored the first two points of OT on a driving layup, and then Starks fouled out with 3:36 remaining -- a big blow to Georgetown. With 18 seconds left and the Orange in front 57-55, Triche was fouled. He made the first, but missed the second, giving the Hoyas another chance to tie. But after a timeout, Porter was smothered defensively and turned the ball over. With four seconds left, Fair went to the foul line, but missed both free throws. Georgetown rebounded, but Trawick's half-court heave at the buzzer was off the mark.

Star watch: Triche, Southerland and Keita each scored 13 points for Syracuse. Triche scored 11 of his 13 after halftime. Southerland drained four 3-pointers, giving him 16 for the tournament -- that ties the tourney record. Keita, who averages just 3.3 points per game and was shooting just 48.6 percent from the foul line, made all seven of his attempts from the charity stripe.

Hopkins had 15 points to lead Georgetown. Starks scored 13 and Porter added 12.

Number crunch: In a box score that reveals a very even game, two things stand out. Syracuse was a little better from beyond the arc, shooting 7-for-18 (38.9 percent); Georgetown was 4-for-18 (22.2 percent). Even more important, Syracuse was 13-for-19 from the foul line (68.4 percent). Georgetown, on the other hand, was just 11-for-20 (55 percent).

What's next: Syracuse, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 2 seed Louisville on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Georgetown heads home, licks its wounds and begins preparing for the Big Dance.

New York City natives lead Louisville

March, 15, 2013
NEW YORK -- The Big Apple didn’t get to see its hometown team play in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.

Louisville versus Villanova was a pretty darn good consolation prize.

No, the game wasn’t a nailbiter. In fact, it was all but over midway through the second half. But a packed house at Madison Square Garden got to watch a national championship contender at the absolute peak of its powers.

Villanova, which took out St. John’s 24 hours earlier to earn a spot in the quarters and had beaten Louisville in late January, was no match for Rick Pitino’s club this night, falling 74-55.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Russ Smith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLouisville's Russ Smith scored 21 of his 28 points against Villanova after halftime.
“We lost last time around for three reasons,” Pitino said. “We missed free throws, didn’t guard the 3-point line, and didn’t cause enough havoc. Tonight we did all three.”

“Havoc” doesn’t nearly do it justice. Louisville led by only nine at the half, 30-21, but it felt like a lot more. That’s what happens when you watch a team commit 18 turnovers in just 20 minutes.

“I think we were just very intense,” Pitino said. “We were really quick. We’re fast.”

Villanova committed only seven more turnovers in the second half. But the Cardinals stepped it up at the other end. After shooting just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) before the break, the Cardinals made 54.2 percent (13-for-24) in the second half -- led by senior guard Russ Smith, who poured in 21 of his game-high 28 points after intermission.

“Their guards completely dominated the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The game was allowed to be played very physical. It was very fair. We just did not respond to the physical play. That’s what happens -- you turn the ball over like that.”

Smith, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicated his performance to his former high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, the legendary Jack Curran, whose death at the age of 82 was announced earlier in the day.

Smith admitted shedding tears when he heard the news. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win.”

Pitino, whose team was already second in the country in steals per game, loved the forced turnover total. But he loved another stat even more: 58 defensive deflections, according to Louisville’s calculations. That’s the most a Pitino-coached team has ever collected in a single game, even during his stints in the NBA.

“It was an incredible thing to witness,” Pitino said.

Last March, Louisville arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of six to end the regular season. But they ended up winning this tournament as the No. 7 seed, and going all the way to the Final Four.

This year, the Cardinals got a head-start. They’ve now won eight games in a row, a streak that began in mid-February.

Villanova had probably already done enough to sneak into the NCAA tournament field as an at-large. But Louisville is shooting for a No. 1 seed.

“This team could win a national championship,” Wright said, of Louisville.

So if New Yorkers are looking for a team to root for in the Big Dance next week -- besides Cinderellas Iona and LIU Brooklyn -- Louisville is a prime candidate.

After all, Pitino is a New York City native and one-time coach of the Knicks. And Smith, a first-team All-Big East performer, is certainly doing his hometown proud.

But as for the rest of the country? Beware.

The Cardinals are picking up some serious steam. You don't want to see them on your side of the bracket.

Rapid Reaction: Louisville 74, Villanova 55

March, 14, 2013

NEW YORK - A quick look at Louisville's 74-55 victory Thursday over Villanova in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: Louisville is heating up at the right time, and moving closer to securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Villanova exits in the quarterfinals, but should hear its name called on Selection Sunday nonetheless.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (27-5) have now won eight games in a row; the defending Big East tournament champs advance to the semifinals.

The Wildcats (20-13) still had a productive trip to New York, picking up their 20th victory of the season against St. John's in the second round. And Villanova's three wins against top-five opponents this season -- Georgetown, Syracuse and Louisville -- should put the Cats over the hump with the selection committee.

The turning point: Villanova took an early 4-0 lead, but Louisville answered with a 15-2 run to take control of the game. The Wildcats closed the gap to 22-19 with 3:35 remaining in the half, on a Tony Chennault jumper. The Cardinals responded with eight consecutive points, including 3-pointers by Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, to take their largest lead to that point, 30-19. Louisville was up 30-21 at intermission.

The margin was still nine (36-27) when Louisville went on a 10-1 spurt to go up 46-28 with 12:36 to play. Smith scored eight of those 10 points, including two more 3-pointers. Yet another Smith triple pushed the lead to 20, 51-31, two minutes later, and the rout was on.

Star watch: Smith, the second-leading scorer in the Big East this season (17.9 points per game), scored a game-high 28 -- 21 in the second half. Smith shot 7-for-12 from the field, 4-for-6 from beyond the arc and 10-for-11 from the foul line. Luke Hancock chipped in 12 points off the bench, and Siva added 10.

JayVaughn Pinkston scored 21 points to lead Villanova. Mouphtaou Yarou had 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Number crunch: Villanova committed 25 turnovers -- with 18 coming in the first half. Not a huge surprise, though, when you consider that the Cardinals were second in the nation in steals per game (10.7) and the Wildcats were 318th in Division I (out of 347) in turnovers per game (15.4).

Also, Louisville shot 10-for-24 from downtown in the game (41.7 percent). Villanova was just 2-for-12 (16.7 percent).

What's next: Louisville, the No. 2 seed, will play No. 6 Notre Dame on Friday night at approximately 9:30 p.m.

Villanova heads home and starts prepping for the Big Dance.

Rapid Reaction: Syracuse 62, Pittsburgh 59

March, 14, 2013
NEW YORK -- A quick look at Syracuse's 62-59 win over Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament.

What it means: Syracuse is headed to the Big East semifinals, and one more tussle with archrival Georgetown. Pittsburgh, a member of the Big East since 1982, has played its final game as a member of the conference.

The No. 19-ranked Orange (25-8, 11-7) arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of five to end the regular season. But they've now won back-to-back games at Madison Square Garden, defeating Seton Hall by 12 on Wednesday, and then holding off Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The No. 17-ranked Panthers (24-8, 12-6) closed the regular season with four wins in a row, but exit this tournament after just one game.

The turning point: The game was tied at 14 midway through the first half, before Syracuse went on a pair of runs. The Orange scored 10 straight points -- with two 3-pointers by James Southerland, and two buckets by Brandon Triche -- to go ahead by a dozen at 27-15. Pittsburgh closed to within five, 32-27, on a pair of James Robinson free throws. But then Syracuse scored eight straight to end the half, capped off by a C.J. Fair 3-pointer at the buzzer (courtesy of a very friendly bounce). The Orange led 40-27 at intermission.

Pittsburgh closed to within four, 47-43, on a Tray Woodall 3-pointer with 8:39 remaining. But on Syracuse's very next possession, Michael Carter-Williams -- a 27.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc -- answered with a 3 of his own, making it 50-43. But Pitt wasn't finished. In fact, the Panthers had a chance to tie the game -- Talib Zanna scored a putback to make it 58-57 with 31 seconds left, and was fouled on the play. But Zanna missed the free throw, Carter-Williams got the rebound, and was fouled.

Carter-Williams sank both ends of the 1-and-1, but Pittsburgh, trailing 60-57, still had one more chance to tie the game. Then Carter-Williams stole a pass from Robinson, was fouled, sank both ends of another 1-and-1, and the Orange emerged victorious.

Star watch: Southerland is the early front-runner for tournament MVP. The 6-foot-8 senior swingman, a New York City native, scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 7-for-10 from the field and a perfect 6-for-6 from downtown. Southerland also scored 20, shooting 6-for-9 from deep, in the Orange's win over Seton Hall on Wednesday.

C.J. Fair had 13 points and seven rebounds for Syracuse, and Triche added 12 points. Carter-Williams had 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds, and made the key plays down the stretch.

Pittsburgh had four players in double figures, led by Lamar Patterson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Woodall (12 points). Zanna and Robinson scored 10 points apiece.

Number crunch: Syracuse shot an astounding 12-for-19 from 3-point range (63.2 percent). Pittsburgh made half as many -- 6-for-19 (31.6 percent).

The Panthers dominated the Orange on the offensive glass 20-8. But they made just 11 of 19 free throws (57.9 percent).

What's next: Syracuse, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 1 seed Georgetown, Friday at 7 p.m. ET. The Hoyas won both regular-season meetings between the teams, including a 61-39 pasting of the Orange last Saturday in D.C.

Pittsburgh returns home to prepare for the NCAA tournament. Prior to Thursday's loss, the Panthers were projected as a No. 5 seed in the latest edition of's Bracketology (as was Syracuse).