Xavier is not only the best team in the Big East, but one of the best teams in the country. After a dominant victory over St. John’s yesterday, the Muskateers had a great start against the Friars in the Big East Tournament Semifinals. But, that didn’t last long.
Paul Scruggs had 10 in the first half for Xavier, and the Friars held star guards J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett to just seven combined points after twenty. “We just wanted to make sure everything they did was tough,” said senior guard Isaiah Jackson. “No easy baskets, no easy open looks.”
Yet, they were down 43-29 which speaks to the depth that the Muskateers have. The Friars also didn’t help themselves. They finished the first half shooting 33% from the field. Providence could’ve went into the half down by single digits, but Scruggs was fouled from the three-point line with 40.9 seconds to go. Rodney Bullock led the way for Providence with nine, and guard Kyron Cartwright was held to just three points.
However, the tide completely turned as the second half wore on. Once down 17, Providence tied the game with 3:33 left to go in the game. The same team that shot 33% in the first half shot 55% in the second half. “Didn’t come out playing the way we wanted to play,” said Friars head coach Ed Cooley. “I was really proud of our young kids in the second half.”
Cartwright turned up the heat and looked like a player who refused to lose. He finished with 15 points after hitting numerous tough jumpers with the game on the line. “We knew we had to pick each other up at the same time and bring that intensity,” said Cartwright. “And I think that helped us tonight.”
This was Cooley’s 11th appearance in the Big East Tournament Semifinals. His senior recruiting class has made the NCAA Tournament the last four years in a row. Regarded as one of the better coaches in college basketball, Cooley clearly has the respect of his players and has built a winning culture in the locker room.
“Our coach did a good job of giving us the fire at halftime,” said senior forward Rodney Bullock, who finished with 17 points. “Our team and all the leaders on our team told us when we went out there before to keep our composure and be more physical.”
Xavier showed everyone what they were capable of in the first half, but after blowing a big lead, there has to be concern before the NCAA Tournament starts next week. But head coach Chris Mack credited Providence and called them a great defensive team.
“We didn’t have an extraordinary amount of turnovers,” said Mack. “But there was a crucial stretch where we made a few in a row, and what is a 17- or 15-point lead becomes single digits. Now the game feels a little funny.”
Cooley’s Friars will take on Villanova in the Big East finals. Providence last won back in 2014. What may guide them back to prominence is their resiliency, something they get from their coach.
When asked about what propels their numerous comebacks, Bullock answered quickly. “It’s just the coaching here,” he said. “Ever since my freshman year, we’ve always been a team that would fight back. and never just give into a win.”