“He’s the best player in the league,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley. “I don’t think there’s even a close second.”
Nope, not Ryan Arcidiacono. Coach Cooley sang his praises for his sophomore star Kris Dunn.
The Villanova faithful had plenty to cheer about throughout the whole game. Kris Dunn changed all that when he singlehandedly silenced Wildcat fans and gave Providence a reason to believe. Down 61-57 with 25 seconds remaining in the game, Dunn pulled out his best Reggie Miller at the Garden impression. He scored four points in a matter of seconds to tie the game for the first time since the opening tip-off. For most of the game, Villanova clung onto a narrow lead. Thanks to Dunn, Providence was able to break through.
“He’s big time,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “He’s the toughest guy we’ve ever guarded on pick-and-rolls.”
It was now up to Villanova to “put up or shut up.” With the shot clock turned off, either finish the game in regulation or continue the madness in overtime.
The Wildcats looked to their Big East Co-Player of the Year for the answer. At this point in the game, he only had four points. It would be his next two points that would make all the difference.
With the shot clock turned off, Ryan Arcidiacono took the ball down the court. He waited patiently before he made his move. He drove to his right and had the open lane to the basket. He shot the ball, but was fouled during his layup attempt. Providence fans were outraged as they watched the replay shown on Madison Square Garden’s jumbotron. They strongly disagreed with the referee’s call and were not afraid to show it. They showered Arcidiacono with boos as he walked up to the line.
The clutch junior guard proceeded to sink both free throws with ease, giving Villanova a 63-61 lead with seconds to spare.
“The last play of the game was a 50-50 call,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “It doesn’t come down to one play. It just didn’t go our way tonight.”
The Friars had one more shot to steal the game away from the Wildcats. LaDontae Henton let go of one last heave before the final buzzer sounded. The ball hit the backboard and bounced harmlessly onto the court.
Nova Nation released one giant sigh of relief as they had plenty to be happy about. It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but it was all the Wildcats needed to move onto their first Big East Tournament championship game since 1995.
“They lifted our guys,” Coach Wright said. “They made us do things we don’t normally do.”
After tying a Big East Tournament record 17 three pointers, the Wildcats struggled to replicate yesterday’s success. Providence closed down on the perimeter, not allowing Villanova to get any good looks from beyond the arc. Villanova didn’t have the same sweet touch, shooting 7-of-23 (30.4%) from three-point range. The Wildcats also had ten turnovers, some of which were the result of uncharacteristic sloppy passing and careless errors.
“A couple of guys weren’t in sync tonight, don’t know why,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We kept our composure and found a way to pull it out. That’s what it takes, you’ve got to have guts.”
Whenever Villanova seemed to have an opportunity to pull away, Providence came storming right back into it. The Wildcats’ largest lead was 11 and it was in the first half. The second half was much more tighter and closer.
It wasn’t completely sloppy. With Providence locking down on the perimeter, it allowed for Daniel Ochefu to have a big game inside. Ochefu had a double-double, putting up 15 points and 13 rebounds. He also had five blocks on defense. Josh Hart had another great game off the bench. The sophomore led the Wildcats in scoring once again. This time around, he had 18 points. Hart was efficient on the floor, shooting 7-for-10 overall and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc. Darrun Hilliard chipped in 12 points and five rebounds before fouling out late in the game.
For Providence, Dunn finished with a game high 22 points. He also had seven rebounds and nine assists. Freshman Ben Bentil had his second consecutive double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The Wildcats improve to 31-2 overall. They will take on the winner of Georgetown-Xavier tomorrow night at 8 p.m. It will be Jay Wright’s first trip to the Big East Tournament finals as a Villanova head coach.