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.
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.