NEW YORK — Sometimes, the best advice is also the most obvious. Ed Cooley’s message to his Providence College men’s basketball team at halftime of the 2018 Big East Tournament semifinals – a game in which his team was down 14 points at intermission and grew worse as the second half started – was a simple, yet very effective, word.
The final 15 minutes of regulation saw the Friars do just that: play. They played much more aggressively, they played smarter and, driven by the largely partisan crowd in New York City, they played inspired, and that eventually led the Friars to one of the more remarkable victories in the tournament’s illustrious history, a 75-72 overtime win over top-seeded Xavier at Madison Square Garden to advance to tomorrow’s championship game.
A mix of the Friars’ fatigue after playing an overtime game just over 24 hours prior against Creighton and Xavier coasting against St. John’s on Thursday led to the Musketeers jumping all over Providence to start tonight’s game, as they led for almost 18 of the 20 minutes in the first half and eventually ended it with a 43-29 advantage.
In the Providence locker room, Ed Cooley challenged his charges, and, in doing so, wondered where the fun was in his team.
“We went in and we talked about — in our business, you have to have real conversation with these young men. You can’t sugarcoat anything,” said the Friars head coach when asked what his words were for his team at the break. “We’re at Madison Square Garden. We’re in the semifinals. There’s so many people that would love to be in this building at this time. Why are we so hesitant to play?
“Play!,” Cooley concluded.
Sparked by the insertion of seldom-used reserve freshman guard Makai Ashton-Langford to provide perimeter defense, the Friars’ defense turned the screws on the Musketeers, holding them to 8-for-27 from the field while climbing back from a 52-35 deficit with 15:20 remaining.
With every defensive stop and with every Kyron Cartwright drive to the basket leading to scores of his own or for others, Providence was able to get its sizable fan contingent back into the game, rattling the normally-composed Musketeers. Cartwright’s soaring dunk down the middle of the lane cut Xavier’s lead to two at 64-64 with 4:22 remaining and, with 12 seconds remaining, his two free throws tied the game at 68, forcing overtime.
The comeback would not have happened without the team “playing,” as in playing for each other – something the senior leadership said might not have happened if this occurred earlier in the season.
“We’re out there on the court, and it’s just how close we are as a unit,” said Cartwright, the senior point guard who also took a charge late in overtime to help seal the win. “We had a lot of times out there, Coach is not out there with us the whole time, but we had a moment where we had to hold each other accountable. It’s something that we didn’t do early on in the year. But, when we needed it most, we did.”
Cooley challenging his players turned into players challenging each other as Providence attempted not to become the welcome mat that it was to Xavier in the first 20 minutes going forward.
“We picked on some people, we started yelling at each other,” Cartwright said. “But we didn’t take it personal and that was a big thing for us. We knew we had to pick each other up at the same time and bring that intensity.”
Once those cathartic sessions took place, Providence could finally play. Freely.
It worked, and it did so against, arguably, the best team in the nation when the game comes down to its most crucial moments, as the Musketeers came into tonight sporting a 15-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, including 5-0 in games decided by five points or fewer and 2-0 in overtime games.
“It’s disappointing, because I feel like we had the game and, you know, we’ve been so awfully good in close games,” said Xavier head coach Chris Mack. “But tonight we just left a few plays out there that we had made, [or] we’d be sitting here getting ready for the winner of Butler-Villanova. But we didn’t. That’s what happens sometimes in the game of basketball.”
And, sometimes, in the game of basketball, the stage could become so big for some that it takes away from what it should be: a game, meant to be played with a child’s exuberance. Providence finally found that, and it played with a purpose in the final 15 minutes of regulation and in overtime. Playing on the sport’s biggest stage helped bring the best basketball out of the Friars, and one more performance like tonight’s could very well lift them to another conference championship.
“We’re looking forward to whoever the winner of the next game is to prepare and — but these young men, all of them, they played their hearts out and left it out there,” Cooley said. “What an atmosphere here in Madison Square Garden. Electric. I’ve got the goosebumps still from the energy in this building.”