Creighton, Villanova to Battle for Big East Supremacy

NEW YORK – Creighton coach Greg McDermott may want to bottle whatever words of wisdom he had for his team after pacing the sideline through the first eight minutes of Friday’s Big East semifinal tilt against No. 11-ranked Providence.

The veteran coach watched as the Blue Jays had trouble rebounding the ball on both ends of the court. Numerous turnovers also stymied the Creighton on the offensive end.

Whatever words McDermott had for his team during the second media timeout allowed him to put together a Picasso-like coaching performance the rest of the way as his team put on a brilliant display over the next 32 minutes on the way to an 85-58 dismantling of the top seeded Friars at Madison Square Garden.

“We beat a really good team … and we did it our way,” McDermott said after watching his team’s impressive performance. “We did it with defense.”

It was the first time a top seed lost by more than three points in a Big East semifinal game since 2010 when Georgetown defeated Syracuse by seven points. The 27-point margin of victory matched the previous record set by Boston College in 2001 against Seton Hall. 

Villanova, the No. 2 seed, held off a stubborn and spirited Connecticut team in Friday’s other semifinal game and will play Creighton (22-10) for the tournament championship on Saturday evening at the world’s most famous arena. Villanova will enter the championship game with a 25-7 record on the season.

It will be Creighton’s fourth appearance in the title game in nine seasons and the Bluejays will be looking for its first Big East tournament championship under McDermott, who is now in his 12th season at the school.

“We haven’t been able to quite kick that door door,” the Creighton coach said, “ … hopefully (Saturday) will be the time to do that.”

Providence took advantage of three Creighton turnovers and corralled several offensive rebounds in the first few moments of the game.

The second media timeout allowed McDermott to settle his team and implore the Bluejays to return to the basics of the game.

It worked to near flawless perfection.

The two teams went punch for punch in the early going. 

There were seven lead changes in the game before Alex O’Connell put Creighton in front 15-13 with 11:34 remaining in the first half. It would be a lead the Bluejays would not relinquish, and only added to, the rest of the way.

Freshman Arthur Kaluma later scored eight straight points and the Bluejays added a 7-0 spurt a short time later as Creighton increased its lead to 37-25 with 2:13 to go before intermission.

Kaluma was one of three Bluejays to reach double figures in scoring before halftime. The six-foot, seven-inch freshman tallied 15 points in the half while O’Connell and Ryan Kalkbrenner chipped in with 11 and 10 points, respectively, to help set the tone for an even more impressive second half for the Bluejays as the dismantling continued.

Providence, which trailed 42-27 at the intermission, struggled to begin the second half. The Friars were whistled for shot-clock violations on each of their first two possessions out of the break which only added to Creighton’s momentum.

Creighton’s Trey Alexander connected on a pair of jumpers to start 10-0 scoring spurt and capped by a back-to-back baskets from Kalbrenner and Kaluma causing Providence to spend its final two timeouts in a span of 45 seconds in an effort to squash the Creighton momentum after the Bluejays had fashioned a 52-27 advantage.

It was not until 13:46 remained in the game that Providence would cut into the Creighton advantage on the scoreboard. 

Two free throws from Brycen Goodine ended the scoring drought and made it 60-31 at the time and ended a 31-2 run by the Bluejays that went all the way back to the 1:42 mark of the first half when O’Connell connected on a 3-pointer that gave Creighton a 40-27 lead at the time. 

A pair of free throws by Al Durham with 15:01 left in the game were the only points Providence could muster before Goodine’s free throws. Durham’s jumper from the lane with 12:37 to go was the first field goal since the 2:03 mark of the first half when Durham connected on another shot from inside the paint for the Friars.

Creighton placed four players in double figures with O’Connell leading the way with 18 points and Kaluma finishing with 17 points before fouling out with 3:16 left in the game. Kalkbrenner and Alexander both chipped in with 15 points for the Bluejays who shot 54 percent (30-57) from the floor in the contest.

Providence was led by Durham’s game-high 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the floor. No other Friar reached double figures as the team combined for just 20-of-65 (.308) field goal shooting.

“Call it what it is,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said after the game. “(Creighton) played well and we didn’t and they were a big reason why.”

VILLANOVA 63, CONNECTICUT 60

Connecticut coach Dan Hurley did his best to work nearly 19,000 fans into a frenzy in the early going of Friday’s second semifinal game that looked a lot like when John L. Sullivan outlasted Jake Kilrain in 75 rounds to win the last bare-knuckle fight in boxing history near Hattiesburg, Miss.

The crowd at Madison Square Garden needed little coaxing from Hurley or anyone else. They were there. They were vocal … and wow, were they partisan.

In the end though, it was Villanova coming away with a 63-60 win over the Huskies to advance to the tournament championship for a sixth time since 2015.

But, just like Sullivan and Kilrain more than 130 years ago, there were plenty of punches exchanged throughout the game.

The game saw 15 lead changes and seven ties.

“It was one of those game where it felt like whoever had the ball last would win,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said after his team’s second nail-biting victory in as many nights at the tournament. “We never felt like we had control.”

Villanova held a narrow 33-32 advantage at halftime and managed to increase that lead to 52-44 midway through the second half when Eric Dixon connected on a 3-pointer.

Despite the deficit the Huskies proved they were not done.

Connecticut responded by scoring five straight points to pull to within 52-49 with just over eight minutes remaining and Adama Sanogo’s short jumper pulled the Huskies even closer at 56-51 remaining in the game.

And again the Wildcats had an answer of their own by building a 60-53 lead with under three minutes to go in the contest.

Sanogo’s putback with 54.5 second to play breathed new life into the Huskies as they trailed 60-57.

Jermaine Samuels was fouled while collecting an offensive rebound and drained both free throws to extend the Villanova lead to 62-57 with 15.4 seconds left in the game.

The heavyweight clash was not quite over as a 3-pointer with 8.6 seconds left pulled the Huskies to within 62-60 before Collin Gillespie tacked on another free throw for the Wildcats for what proved to be the final point of the night as UConn was unable to get a shot off before the clock expired.

Samuels finished with a game-high 21 points and a team-high 12 rebounds to lead the Wildcats in the victory. He was joined in double figures by Slater, who finished with 15 points in the contest. That duo combined to connect on six of the 10 3-pointers by the Wildcats in the game. Each nailed three treys in the contest. Gillespie, the league’s scholar-athlete of the year, was held to just five points, but dished out a game-high 10 assists for the Wildcats.

Two of Samuels’ 3-pointers came in the first few minutes of the game as the two teams traded long-range scores. It was not until Slater scored with 7:13 to go in the half that Villanova connected on a field goal from inside the arc and pulled the Wildcats to within 21-19 at the time.

Tyrese Martin paced the Huskies with 19 points and Sanogo chipped in with 15 points as UConn dropped to 23-9 heading into the NCAA Tournament which begins next week.  RJ Cole, who led UConn with eight rebounds, and Andre Jackson added 11 and 10 points respectively, for the Huskies.

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