NEW YORK — Just in case Ed Cooley let it slip from his mind that the Providence Friars and Madison Square have gone together like oil and vinegar for the longest time, he received a reminder from the college’s president, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley.
“From what (Shanley) told me, we haven’t won down here often,” stated Cooley. “So for us to get off the schneid, it’s a great accomplishment for our program.”
By no means was it smooth sailing, but the Friars were able to nail down a crucial win in a building that has resembled more of a torture chamber than a hallowed hall of hoops prestige. The 79-74 victory over St. John’s on Thursday afternoon puts the breaks on a five-game slide at MSG and pushes PC into the semifinals of the Big East Tournament for the first time since 1997.
On deck Friday night is a date with a Seton Hall squad that earlier in the day set off fireworks around college basketball’s landscape with a last-second 64-63 victory over regular-season champion Villanova. The Friars and Pirates split two games during the regular season with each squad winning on the other’s home floor.
Bringing up the ’97 Friars is significant because it marks the last time the program won multiple games in conference-tournament play. PC had dropped 15 of its previous 17 Big East tourney contests dating back to 1998.
“I’m excited to advance because that’s what tournament play is all about,” said a clearly relieved Cooley after watching the Friars nearly surrender a 17-point lead with 6:24 remaining.
The healthy advantage nearly became a footnote after the Red Storm crawled to within 69-68 with 1:15 remaining. Looking for some sort of spark in its home building, St. John’s began turning Providence over at an alarming rate and were aided further when Josh Fortune and Tyler Harris came up empty on 1-and-1 bids at the free-throw line.
Just when it appeared St. John’s was in prime position to take the game over, Providence took a page from its recent double-overtime victory over Marquette and dug deep. After watching Bryce Cotton come up empty on a drive to the rim with 48 seconds left, the Friars got a much-needed stop when Carson Desrosiers denied D’Angelo Harrison at the rim. PC assumed possession following a jump-ball call with 38.6 seconds left.
Staying with its full-court trap, St. John’s nearly forced another turnover with Cotton set to hit the deck at midcourt. Harrison was called for the foul, one of 46 in the contest. On a day where he was largely invisible due to foul trouble, Cotton swished home a pair to give the Friars some breathing room at 71-68.
Cotton’s two makes kicked off a game-sealing stretch that saw PC hit its last 10 free throws. Looking for the tie, St. John’s bid was denied when Fortune blocked a three-point bid by Harrison with 16 ticks remaining. In some respects, it was fitting that the PC sophomore guard came through with a game-saving defensive play on a day when he pumped in a career-best 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
You could tell that Fortune enjoyed setting such a mark at the Garden as a smile appeared on the guard’s face after he swished home his fourth trey. The catch-and-shoot sequence capped off a stretch where Fortune scored eight straight points for PC, which went up 50-37 at the 14:21 mark of the second half.
“It was definitely fun. Coach told me to keep shooting and stay aggressive, and my teammates found me,” said Fortune. “To get a win in the Garden and get to the next round, it’s something we didn’t do last year.”
Fortune has now scored in double figures in six of the last seven games. PC needed every last ounce of his production on a day when Cotton turned in his worst game of the season. The senior shot just 1-of-10 but managed to finish with 12 points thanks to hitting 10 free throws.
“If you would have told me Bryce (would have struggled in the fashion he did) and we would be sitting here following a win, I’d be lying to you,” said Cooley.
Said Cotton, “It was just one of those days. Sometimes you can’t buy a basket.”
While Cotton’s outing was largely one to forget – he had just one point at halftime and missed as nearly as many free throws (three) as shots from the field (five) – his teammates proved up to the challenge of picking up the slack. The biggest test for Fortune and the rest of the Friars came when Cotton picked up his fourth foul with 12:17 left.
PC was ahead 53-41 when Cotton went to the bench. He ended up sitting for six minutes and 23 seconds. The Friars were able to weather the storm as the lead stood at 15 points (64-46) when their vital cog returned to the hardwood.
“I was the probably the biggest cheerleader at the time,” said Cotton. “My teammates came through and I’m grateful for that. As long as we come through the win at the end of the day, I’ll be fine.”
Cooley elected to bring Fortune, Desrosiers, Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton to the interview room afterwards. He stated that “there’s plenty of game balls to go around” and he was correct. Henton (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Batts (13 points, 12 rebounds) each posted double doubles while Desrosiers stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“It’s about the guys that are up here, not the ones who aren’t,” said Cooley.
St. John’s was led by Harrison’s 21 points with Rysheed Jordan (17 points) and JaKarr Sampson (15 points) also contributing. The Red Storm led by as many as seven points in the first half before going into halftime trailing, 36-33.
“They had more energy than us,” said Sampson about the Friars.
To that end, PC outrebounded St. John’s, 49-44.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03