Villanova Beats Providence in Memorable Affair, Captures Big East Tournament Title


Courtesy of Villanova Athletics

The Wildcats celebrate their Big East Tournament victory over the Providence Friars. 

Mike Keeley

For the second year in a row and third time in four tries, the Villanova Wildcats are BIG EAST Tournament champions, defeating the Providence Friars in an overtime thriller, 76-66.

After defeating Marquette and Butler in their first two games, the only team left in the Wildcats path Saturday evening was the No. 5 seed Friars. Experienced giant-slayers, having taken down the Wildcats earlier this season and the No. 1 seed Xavier Musketeers in the semifinal, the Friars gave Wildcat head coach Jay Wright’s squad by far their biggest scare of the tournament.

‘Nova started strong on the defensive end Saturday night, as freshman forward Omari Spellman made a block on the first possession, followed by a turnover created on a trap led by junior forward Mikal Bridges on the very next possession. Again mimicking Friday night’s game, the Wildcats paired their ferocious defensive effort with accurate shooting to open up a lead in the first 4:00, 9-2.

Junior guard Jalen Brunson’s four points led this early surge. Brunson continued his strong play throughout the game, finishing with a team leading 31 points.

Unlike the earlier two games, freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree played early rotation minutes absent of any foul-trouble from a starter. In his brief cameo he was lively, drawing a shooting foul off a pick-and-roll and making a free throw to extend the lead to 11-6 at the 15:08 mark of the first half.

The moment was not too big for an experienced Providence squad as the Friars fought back early, tying the game at eleven behind an all-around effort from sophomore guard Alpha Diallo, who, by the time the game was tied at the 11:30 mark, had six points on a perfect 3-3 shooting, three rebounds and an assist. Diallo would finish the night with 22 points and 10 boards. 

Out of the under 12:00 television timeout, the Wildcats surged back into the lead, first behind a Bridges pull-up jumper followed by Brunson corner three, making the score 16-11. Again the Wildcats defense proved key. The team held the Friars scoreless for a total of 5:07 as they stretched the lead to 21-11.

The Friars surged back again however, forcing a couple of shot-clock violations from the Wildcats to help close the deficit to 21-20 at the 5:38 mark in the first half. It was during this stretch that senior forward Rodney Bullock, who finished with 10 points, three rebounds and two assists, first got on the board, knocking down a triple followed by a two-point jumper.

In response to the Friars’ surging momentum, Wright reinserted his go-to lineup, four starters and sophomore guard Dante DiVincenzo in place of Phil Booth. With the score tied at 23, the Wildcats kicked into gear. Spellman put back a missed three and Brunson hit a contested deep-ball to regain the lead, 28-23.

“We don’t have any seniors, these guys are juniors,” Wright said. “And they just keep getting better throughout the year.”

Despite holding the lead, the ‘Cats had gone ice cold at this point shooting just 3 of 10 on their last ten field goal attempts before half. The drought would have been worse if not for Brunson, who was 2 for 4 in this stretch, sending Villanova to intermission with a narrow lead, 31-27.

The Wildcats started the second half the same way they did the first, expanding their lead to 12 points behind eight early points from Brunson. The Friars appeared to be fighting fatigue, a product of the two overtime contests they had previously won. The Friars struggled to keep the ‘Cats out of the lane as they had done in the first 20 minutes, and gave up multiple offensive rebounds in the first few minutes of the half.

“They got a couple of quick starts to start the half, but we weathered both storms,” Friars head coach Ed Cooley said.

By the midpoint of the half the Friars had weathered the second “storm” and gained some momentum. After drawing closer throughout the second half behind Diallo and senior guard, Kyron Cartwright, who had 19 points and six assists, the Friars finally got the game tied at 51, then later 58, before taking the lead for the first time, 60-58, on a Diallo layup with only 0:40 left on the clock. After Jalen Brunson sank two free throws to tie the game with 0:30 remaining, Providence had one more shot to end it in regulation. It was not to be however, as a Cartwright floater from the left elbow clanked harmlessly up off the rim and fell to the court. Overtime would be necessary to decide this one.

Although the contest ended up as a 10-point game, overtime was just as close as the two regulation periods had been. In reality this was a four-point game followed by two intentional foul free throws by sophomore guard Dante DiVincenzo, and then two garbage time buckets, a dunk by Brunson and a layup by DiVincenzo. The moments that really sealed this title for the Wildcats were a broken-play three-ball by Bridges to stretch the lead to four points, and a jumper by Brunson to reestablish that margin.

“Either team could have won that overtime game,” Wright said. “We had a great player pick up a loose ball and shoot a three.” 

On Sunday, Villanova will find out its fate for the NCAA Tournament. The team is likely to get the No. 1 seed in the East Region, which would place them in Pittsburgh for the opening rounds.