‘Last ones standing’: Two teams on different paths meet in Big East final

Can the Friars continue their impressive run and knock out Creighton and the red-hot Doug McDermott?

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The last time Providence played in a Big East championship game, current Friars coach Ed Cooley was a senior at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, "Schindler’€™s List" was about to clean house at the Oscars and Creighton was in the third and final season of a forgettable Rick Johnson era in Omaha.

Twenty years have passed since those Friars knocked off Georgetown for its first and only Big East crown, and on Saturday, they’€™ll finally have a chance to make it two against a Creighton squad that is two coaches, a new conference and a world away from the team that was floundering in the basement in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1994.

"Sure, I remember,"€ the Providence native Cooley said of that ’94 victory Friday after his team’s 80-74 semifinal win over Seton Hall. "I remember when Providence College played in that game — and I was really happy for our city and our state. But that was then. This is a new era. This is a new Big East. And we’re really fortunate to be here, because there’€™s a lot of teams that would love to be sitting in this game tomorrow, and we’re one of the last ones standing."

If Cooley is looking for someone to thank for his team’s return to Big East relevance, he can start with forward LaDontae Henton, who followed up a double-double Thursday against St. John’s with a season-high 26 points to go with 14 rebounds against a Pirates team that appeared to run out of gas after an emotional quarterfinal win over Villanova.

Henton was one of three Friars players, along with guards Bryce Cotton and Josh Fortune, who played all 40 minutes in the victory, which was somewhat redemptive for the junior Henton and the senior Cotton, who were starters on the 2012 team that lost by 32 to Seton Hall in the first round of this same tournament.

"When you reflect and see how far you’ve come in a short period of time," Cooley said, "€œit’€™s all about these players and the effort and the time and commitment that they just put into not just the basketball organization, but the culture of building Providence College."

"Going into this summer, we built such a great chemistry, and we have such a tight bond, and we knew there was something special about this team," Cotton added. "€œWe couldn’€™t quite figure out what it was that was special, (but) as the season continues on for us, I think we’€™re starting to see it."

A bubble team heading into the tournament, Providence (22-11) is all but a lock to make the field of 68 after Friday, but a win over Creighton, with whom the Friars split the regular-season series, would solidify their status as a team to be feared in the NCAA tournament.

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"I think Ed Cooley has done as good a job of coaching his team as anybody in the country," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "… To his credit, his team has really willed their way, in my opinion, into an NCAA tournament. We’ve played teams from the Big Ten and the Pac-12 that are on the bubble, and the team we’re playing tomorrow night is much better, in my opinion."

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are looking to close out a stellar debut season in the Big East with a championship win that would not only be historic –€” after a 86-78 win over Xavier in the semifinals, Creighton is the first team since Villanova in 1981 to reach the Big East tournament championship in its first season in the conference — but would also signal a changing of the guard in one of basketball’s most fabled conferences.

"I think in the back of our minds, we felt like we could compete in this league, simply because — we just have so much experience and guys who know how to play basketball," Greg McDermott said. "… So I don’t know that we were surprised (to be here). We’€™re honored, but these guys have averaged 26, 27 wins a game over the last four years, and I think there’s something to knowing how to win and understanding how to win."

"€œIt’€™s just an unreal feeling," added forward Ethan Wragge, who had 17 points in the Creighton victory. "Five years ago I was just playing in the Missouri Valley and now tomorrow we’€™ll be playing for one of the most historic college tournaments of all time."€

With success on a bigger stage, however, comes elevated expectations. A conference title could help Creighton (26-6) leapfrog Villanova as the highest-seeded Big East team in the NCAA tournament, where just being there will no longer be good enough.

Creighton has lost in the round of 32 in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. But with 32 points Friday, Doug McDermott became the first Creighton player with three straight 30-point games since Benoit Benjamin in 1985, and he’ll be expected to maintain that pace — or something like it –€” if Creighton is to emerge as a championship contender.

But first things first, Saturday’s bout between two teams with starkly different Big East histories — one looking to return to glory after two decades on the lam and another aiming to spark a legacy in its first year among the big boys. There’s some poetry in the matchup, but that means little to the players and coaches involved.

"Man, I’€™m not thinking about that, baby," Cooley said after Providence’s win. "€œI’€™m not thinking about that. I’m just thinking about how we can beat whoever wins. We’ve played them. We played Creighton, we played Xavier, we split them both. I’€™m thinking about the moment. I’€™m in the moment right now."

Added Doug McDermott: "It’€™s what we all dream for. It’s pretty crazy that we’€™re already here and we’re playing a good Providence team. It’s going to be a special feeling when we walk out there tomorrow."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.