The Big East hoops tradition was alive and well, even for a Thursday quarterfinal matinee--fans packed Madison Square Garden from top to bottom.
Just as it always seems to be since conference realignment, no matter the odds or the round, whenever the Villanova Wildcats and the Providence Friars meet in the Big East Tournament, the crowds are treated to an intense game.
”They’re really well-coached, and Ed’s been there a long time,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of the Friars. “I’ve been there. We really know what the other is doing, and we’ve had so many tough games with each other. I think the players are very comfortable in terms of style of play. The styles match up similarly. They’re very tough, very physical.”
Wright added: “Look at last year, we went to the NCAA Tournament--you can say we won afterwards pretty handily--but this game here, we could have easily lost against Providence in overtime.”
Last year, it was for the championship. Although it was the quarterfinal tip-off this year, the game had no shortage of intensity, as it was another close battle once again.
After a back-and-forth slugfest, top-seeded Villanova managed to pull away late from the eighth-seeded Friars, using a 14-5 run that was highlighted by three-straight baskets and a series of free throws to gain separation. Once the Wildcats pushed their lead into double figures, albeit briefly, they were able to hang on the rest of the way. Villanova won, 73-62, to advance onto Friday’s semifinal game, where it will take on the winner of the No. 4/No. 5 matchup between the Creighton Bluejays and the Xavier Musketeers.
”Good effort against a Providence team that’s really starting to come together,” Wright said. “[Providence] played a great game last night. If you look at their team the last five or six games, even their losses, close losses, tough games, and they’re really playing good basketball. So, I think we beat a good, physical, defensive team. It wasn’t pretty, but you’ve got to be willing to play ugly and win some of those games.”
With the game knotted up at 44 and 9:04 remaining in the game, the Providence fans in the Garden started to get rowdy, as an Alpha Diallo and-one during a cold stretch for the Wildcats allowed them to come back into the game.
The momentum was seemingly turning in Providence’s favor, until Collin Gillespie drained a three-pointer to quiet down the crowd momentarily. It was also the spark for Villanova’s game-changing 14-5 run, which Gillespie finished off with another three before Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider piled on a series of free throws to make it 61-49, with 4:36 to go in the game.
”The highs and lows--thought we had great energy coming out to start, a great gameplan,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “I thought the second half--particularly the last 10 minutes--was what our year has been. Up and down, make a shot, make it close. Villanova--in particular Paschall, Booth, and Gillespie--do a great job of leading the team...I thought our effort was good, but we just made too many mistakes. Costly mistakes, especially late.”
Although Villanova led for a majority of the game, Providence got in front from opening tip-off, seemingly carrying over the hot hand from Wednesday night less than 24 hours later.
Phil Booth tipped off the game with a breakaway dunk for the first score of the afternoon. The Friars responded with a 9-0 run capped off by a David Duke Jr. layup. That was last time Providence would lead for the rest of the way. ‘Nova rumbled back from its slow start, eventually taking the lead. Although the Friars let the ‘Cats take control, they never let up. Neither team was able to pull away. Almost every Villanova shot was matched with one from Providence. When it seemed like the Wildcats would bury the Friars, Providence started dishing out a run of its own.
However, Villanova was able to get a little separation before the end of the first half, scoring six points in less than a minute to build a 31-24 lead going into the break.
The Friars emerged from halftime with a ferocious effort, stringing together a run to cut the deficit down to 32-30 in the first few minutes of the half. From there, the game resumed its back-and-forth nature, until the ‘Cats were able to pull away, outscoring the Friars 29-18 over the final 9:04. Paschall and Gillespie added the finishing touches at the end, as Paschall had a dunk in transition, then Gillespie added a layup to make it a double-digit game again in the final minute of play.
Paschall led the way with a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds. Gillespie finished with 19 points and shot 5-of-10 from long range. Booth added 13 points.
For Providence, Nate Watson had 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Diallo and Isaiah Jackson had 14 points apiece.
Providence drops to 18-15 overall for the season. Villanova is now 23-9 for the year.