Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson will be back at Madison Square Garden before Jay Wright returns for next year’s conference tournament. The two future pros, who led the Wildcats to yet another Big East championship, aren’t long for college basketball.
But even with these two talented guys on one side, who was the best player on the floor in the Big East championship- Bridges, Brunson or Kyron Cartwright, a senior guard who nearly led the Friars to back-to-back overtime upsets of No. 1 seeds?
They each had a chance to claim the player of the tournament award, which eventually went to Bridges, in Villanova’s 76-66 overtime win.
On a night where he didn’t leave the floor in 45 minutes of play, Cartwright, who finished with 19 points and 6 assists, had some of the most dazzling moves of the tournament. “I wanted the ball in Kyron’s hands,” Ed Cooley said. During their second-half comeback, Cartwright took control.
After hitting a contested three-point shot in the second half to cut the Friars’ deficit to two, Cartwright pointed at the ground like he owned the building. As he brought the Friars’ back in the last ten minutes, it felt like he did. Being guarded by Bridges for most of the game, nothing would come easy for Providence’s point guard.
But then, his missed shot at the end of regulation left the door open for Villanova’s two likely NBA draft picks to take the Friars by storm in overtime.
Early in the extra period, Mikal Bridges caught fire from behind the arc, and Jalen Brunson’s midrange jumper extended the Wildcats’ lead to 70-66. Villanova’s junior guard, who finished with a career-high 31 points, missed a critical free throw late in regulation but shook it off and led his teammates through the adversity they faced in the second half.
“They more than carried their team today and made some tough, tough shots,” Cooley said about Bridges and Brunson. “Those kids live for this moment. And (Bridges) had his moment. So I don’t think it’s luck. I’ve seen him make 100 of those 3s at the top of the key.”
Winning their second consecutive conference tournament championship, Bridges and Brunson have come a long way from the supporting roles they played in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament championship their freshman year. In a conference that’s had just two one-and-done players in the last four drafts, the veterans who took center stage Saturday alongside Kyron Cartwright sparked a great night at the Garden where it all seemed pure.
“This has been a rough year for college basketball with respect to everything that’s going on and the culture of it,” Cooley said. “And I think some of the national attention that’s been on the negative today accentuated the positive.
“Don’t let those few bad apples destroy the bunch of the goodness of this game, and more importantly how it changes lives.”
Unlike the other conference tournament finals going on Saturday night, there was a sense of camaraderie and an overarching sentiment of pride. After the game, Cooley and Jay Wright both joked about the Providence coach’s pants splitting and his makeshift, Gatorade-sponsored belt. And during the trophy ceremony, Wright brought two notable alumni to the stage to remind his NBA bound stars what it means to be where they are.
“I’m up there and Kyle is telling them how good Mikal is, and Randy Foye is telling me how good Jalen is; how he’s going to do in the NBA,” Wright said. “To hear it from those guys means a lot.”
Maybe the only one praising them more was Cooley, who went so far as to call Brunson is the best player in the country. But Bridges, the higher rated NBA prospect, took home the player of the tournament award. And Cartwright nearly finished one of the most memorable performances in tournament history before falling short at the end of his third overtime in three days. They all were spectacular.
“My man, this is something you dream about when you’re a kid — as a player first and then when you grow up, say what do you want to do,’’ Cooley said. “If you can’t enjoy this moment, win or lose, on that stage, on this day, Saturday night, you got a problem.”
Providence entered this tournament with much different problems- NCAA Tournament problems. But the Friars ended their showing (in the Big East it’s always a show) on eye-level with two No. 1 seeds. Cartwright ended it on eye level with two prospects. And then the lights went down on a finale that left everyone satisfied.