The doubters are beginning to scatter. While Providence won't know its NCAA fate until Sunday, they did what they were told they had to do ever since their 2OT loss to Villanova. The Friars went 3-1 down the stretch of the Big East regular season, and won a huge bubble game at the Big East Tournament in New York in what was a virtual home game for an equally desperate St. John's squad.
After seemingly cruising to victory with about six minutes to go, St. John's made one last push with a frantic press. It nearly worked, as the Friar lead shrank from 17 to 1 point in under 6 minutes. But Ed Cooley reminded his team that it was still their game if they made their free throws. He was right. "Stay in the moment", said Cooley. "I continued to tell them we're the best free throw shooting team in the country. So keep in the moment, make sure you don't lose your composure. All we had to do was to win by one. That's what I was concerned about."
Josh Fortune was the standout player of the game for Providence. His 24 point performance was the culmination of the steady improvement he's shown the last few weeks. "We did a good job on offense finding open shots and making shots," said Fortune. "I think they switched to man because we made shots when they were in zone. We just made the shots (today)."
However, the win was so much more than Fortune. The Friars really collectively won the game, and got contributions from everyone who played. There was a big first half from LaDontae Henton, a composed game and critical jumpshot by Kadeem Batts down the stretch, tenacity on the glass and in the paint by Tyler Harris, and outstanding shot blocking and critical free throws by Carson Desrosiers. Bryce Cotton struggled mightily for once, and a bad fall midway through the first half that gave a lot of pause that he might be injured. However, as the game wore on, it really was rare foul trouble and St. John's suffocating defense on him that really was the cause for Cotton's off day. Both Cotton and the coaching staff indicated that Cotton would be ready to go Friday night.
Ed Cooley was proud how his team met the challenge. "I thought we controlled the whole second half. It's the first time all year we've played without Bryce Cotton for a period of time, so I'm proud of the development of the group. We came together and had a hard fought win."
The hard fight was evident on the backboards, as Providence outrebounded St. John's by 5 with four Friars pulling down 10 or more rebounds. Carson Desroisers talked about meeting the challenge. "They're a physical team; they've got a lot of size, a lot of athleticism. I think we did a pretty good job on the boards today. I think that's one of the reasons we won the game."
Now it's on to the Big East Tournament semi-final against shocking Cinderella Seton Hall, who knocked off #1 Seed Villanova on a buzzer beater by Sterling Gibbs. Providence has a golden opportunity to get to the Big East Final for the first time since 1994 if they can beat the Pirates once more.
As for the Friars NCAA hopes, they are rapidly improving and that is a good thing at this late date. Depending on what happens nationally, Providence may have already done enough to make the Big Dance, but they would be wise to make it to the Big East Final to remove most doubt. Tipoff is a 7:00 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. Get there if you can, Friartown!
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