March Madness has officially begun, and the Providence Friars look ready to bust up the Big East tournament brackets — and maybe some NCAA ones as well — after taking a come-from-behind, overtime thriller Friday night against the Xavier Musketeers.
“What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley after asking for a moment to collect himself with a swig of water at the postgame podium. “We know we were playing against arguably the best team in the country.”
The Friars (21-12, 10-8 Big East) overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to upset the Musketeers (28-5, 15-3 Big East) 75-72 in the semifinal thriller. The loss puts the Musketeers chance at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in jeopardy, and increases the Friars chances at an at-large bid should they not capture the automatic NCAA tournament slot in Saturday’s championship game.
In a raucous Madison Square Garden, the Friars not only played against the regular season Big East champions and tournament No. 1 seed, they beat them after trailing by as many as 17 behind 15 points and some big defensive plays from Kyron Cartwright, an effort that left him “speechless” after the win.
“I don’t know what happened out there. It just happened,” Cartwright said.
The two teams tied their regular season series 1-1, and to break the tie, one of the sides would need a wild card.
At first it appeared Xavier guard Paul Scruggs was ready to be that x-factor. Scruggs more than doubled his season scoring average of 4.5 points per game mere minutes after entering the contest, scoring 13 points on a perfect 4-4 shooting with two 3-pointers in the first half as the Musketeers jumped out to a 43-29 lead.
But it wouldn’t be enough. A 35-21 run had the garden booming chants of “Let’s go Providence!” as the Friars hit shot after shot to come all the way back, tying the game 64-64 on a jumper from Rodney Bullock.
Xavier had no answers for Providence’s press or Cartwright’s explosion after a halftime talk about “manning up” from Cooley as well as Cartwright’s own conversation with teammate Makai Ashton-Langford.
The freshman guard has often been so buried in Providence’s rotation that he said he didn’t even know he would play against Xavier until his coach called him over to sub in, but Ashton-Langford surprised with four points in 10 key minutes off of the bench.
And while Ashton-Langford capably sopping up minutes might have helped spell the tired Friars in their second overtime game in as many nights, his biggest contribution might have been firing up Cartwright.
“I told him I needed him to help me because I didn’t have it going in the first half,” Cartwright said. “Without his driving to the basket and making plays early in the half, I wouldn’t have been able to do that at the end.”
The “that” Cartwright did at the end was hit a pull-up jumper with 57 seconds left before taking a charge on Xavier guard JP Macura to give his team just enough of a lead to hold on.
Cartwright’s strong night allowed the Friars to become the first fifth seed to advance to the Big East finals since 2013, and reminded his coach of now former guard Bryce Cotton, but Cooley made sure to point out there is still one key difference between the two.
“He won a championship,” Cooley cracked.
After helping Providence to the third-biggest comeback in Big East tournament history, Cartwright is hoping he can equal that particular mark on Cotton’s resume as well and give Providence their first Big East title since 2014.
“Seniors have to step up to the moment and help the team,” Cartwright said. “I”m going to try to do that tomorrow night and hopefully try to will my team to a championship.”