NEW YORK — Providence Friars coach Ed Cooley had a gut feeling that playing zone against the best 3-point shooting team in the country might just work in the Big East Conference tournament championship.
He was right. Providence worked the zone to near perfection, earning a 65-58 win over the No. 4 Creighton Bluejays at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
Creighton (26-7) entered the game shooting an NCAA-best 42.7 percent from 3-point range, but was stymied by the Friars 2-3 zone, converting only 26.7 percent (8 of 30) of its shots from beyond the arc.
Providence (23-11), the fourth seed, last won the tournament championship in 1994.
Guard Bryce Cotton, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led the Friars (23-11) with 23 points. Forward Tyler Harris and guard Josh Fortune scored 10 points apiece and forward LaDontae Henton grabbed 13 rebounds for Providence.
Forward Doug McDermott led the Bluejays with 27 points. The Big East Conference Player of the Year scored 94 points in the three tournament games.
Second seed Creighton (26-7) was seeking a third straight conference tournament title. The Bluejays claimed the Missouri Valley Conference title in 2012 and 2013.
McDermott made only 5 of his 12 3-pointers and forward Ethan Wragge, the Bluejays most skilled long-range shooter, was just 1 of 7 from beyond the arc.
Providence drifted in and out of a zone during the regular season, but Saturday it stayed with it the entire game.
“I just had a feeling as a coach,” admitted Cooley about installing the zone. “Our players bought into it. I think if your players believe in it, then you should execute it.
“Their (players) eyes told me everything I needed to know. When I asked them, ‘Hey, you guys want to go one (man-to-man) right here?,” They said, ‘ No coach. We’re good. We’re good.’
“That’s when you’ve got to listen.”
Creighton never led in the second half.
While the Bluejays moved to within two points, 58-56, on back-to-back 3-pointers from McDermott with 1:20 to play, a jumper from forward LaDontae Henton gave the Friars a 60-56 lead with 46 seconds left.
“When your teammates believe in you and they put you in spots to score the ball, you just want to come through for them,” said Henton.
McDermott went without a field goal for 5:11 minutes before draining that first 3-pointer.
Providence sank 7 of 7 from the line in the last 1:37 of the game.
An 8-3 run by the Friars in the first five minutes of the second half opened up a 36-27 lead for Providence. Cotton scored five points in the run.
The Bluejays closed to 18-15 with 3:29 remaining in the first half, but Providence outscored Creighton 8-2 for a 26-17 lead at the intermission. Forward Tyler Harris led the Friars with nine first half points.
Creighton found it difficult to negotiate through Providence’s 2-3 zone, failing to get to the line even once in the first half. The Bluejays turned to their perimeter game, but that produced only one 3-pointer in 12 attempts.
“I didn’t think our ball movement and our spacing against their zone wasn’t where it needed to be in the first half,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. “I thought there was a little bit of a sense of panic at times with a few of our turnovers and maybe a couple of rushed shots.
“It turned out that the start of the game was too much to overcome with a team that was controlling tempo. That zone was tough, we were really weren’t expecting it. It threw us off to start the game.”
McDermott endured a subpar first half, scoring nine points. He nailed just one of his four 3-point shots.
Providence erased a 9-8 Creighton lead, its last of the night, by going on a 9-0 run to move ahead 17-9 with 6:54 left in the half. Cotton led the charge with seven points on a layup, a 3-pointer and a jumper. The Bluejays missed four shots, all 3-pointers, during the sequence.
NOTES: The All-Tournament team consisted of F Doug McDermott and G Austin Chatman of Creighton, LaDontae Henton of Providence, Seton Hall C Eugene Teague and Xavier G Samaj Christon. … LaDontae
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