The first tournament championship game in the "new" Big East Conference Saturday night at Madison Square Garden drew a less-than-capacity crowd of 15,290 fans, in part because finalists Creighton and Providence are low-wattage on the marquee. But the crowd turned up the volume as the Bluejays and Friars fought a taut battle down the stretch.
The one legitimate star on the Garden stage, national scoring leader Doug McDermott, filled the nets with 27 points, including a three-pointer that cut Creighton's deficit to two with 1:17 remaining. But it was the Friars who cut down the nets for the first time since 1994 after a pulsating 65-58 victory.
McDermott scored 92 points in three tournament games, but Providence point guard Bryce Cotton, who had 23 points in the title game, was named the most outstanding player. Providence (23-11) also got 10 points each from Josh Fortune and Tyler Harris of Dix Hills. Benchwarmer Avery Dingman was the only other player in double figures for the No. 14 Bluejays (26-7) with 10 points.
Describing the championship net around his neck, Cotton said: "It's just a vindicating feeling to know the Providence Friars are Big East champions. This is something our city and our school hasn't seen in a long time. For us to bring that back home is at the top of the list."
The Friars surprised Creighton with a zone against one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. It was a quiet first half for McDermott, who scored nine points and was only 1-for-6 on three-point shots.
And it was a downright funereal silence from the rest of the Bluejays lineup. The other four starters produced zilch in the scoring column as benchwarmers Devin Brooks and Dingman accounted for the remaining eight Creighton points as Providence got out to a 26-17 halftime lead. The Jays shot 1-for-12 from three-point range and didn't get to the foul line for a single shot while settling for jumpers.
"That zone is tough," McDermott said. "I don't think we really were expecting zone. We were kind of panicking almost to start the game and rushing and not making extra passes."
The Friars went on a second-half tear, making 7 of 8 shots, including a four-point play by Cotton, to build a 47-35 lead. Cotton had 12 points in that stretch.
Consecutive three-pointers by Grant Gibbs and McDermott cut it to 56-53, making it a one-possession game with 2:29 left. After Kadeem Batts hit two free throws for Providence, another McDermott three cut it to 58-56 and sent the Garden into a frenzy. LaDontae Henton hit a jumper to make it a four-point cushion at the 45-second mark.
Then McDermott finally missed, his long three on track but off the front rim. The Friars wrapped it up with free throws.
The Friars played their way off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into the automatic bid.
"It feels great," Cotton said. "Given all the adversity, the obstacles we faced, we're just going to cherish this moment."
Now the question going into Selection Sunday is how much respect the "new" Big East will receive from the selection committee. Creighton coach Greg McDermott said predictions of only two slots are "ridiculous."
Most likely, the conference will receive four bids, including the Bluejays, third-ranked Villanova (28-4) and semifinal loser Xavier (21-12). St. John's (20-12), which lost to the Friars in the quarters, might have been helped by their title and sneak in as a fifth Big East team.
But said McDermott: "I think justice is served that we're going to get four teams in."
Maybe he knows something since the Bluejays' athletic director is on the committee.