NEW YORK — Providence came to the Big East tournament feeling like it still had something to prove. Instead, the Friars will leave with a bitter taste in their mouths.
A team that’s lived on the edge all season, PC may have tempted fate one too many times on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The top-seeded Friars were unable to overcome a slow start and substantial deficit like they have so many times this season, as they were knocked out in the Big East semifinals in embarrassing fashion with an 85-58 loss to Creighton.
Al Durham admitted after Providence’s stressful victory over ninth-seeded Butler in Thursday’s quarterfinal that the Friars know the urgency needs to pick up instead of relying on second-half comebacks and coming through in the final minutes. The former simply didn’t happen against a hungry Creighton squad after they fell behind by 15 at halftime, and it never got close.
“We picked a bad time to play bad,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.
“I didn’t think we played well (Thursday). We just found a way to win. I thought that caught up to us today. We’ve got some warts, just like everybody else, but we’ll get better.”
PC will now look ahead to its biggest game of the season next week. The Friars, after winning the Big East regular season championship for the first in school history, are a lock to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018, and will likely get a No. 4 or 5 seed in the Big Dance as they try to extend their surprise season on a magical run.
But first, they’ll lick their wounds after one of their worst losses of the season.
Durham, a day after hitting a clutch go-ahead 3-pointer to lead Providence to its quarterfinal win, picked up where he left off. He led the Friars with 15 first-half points and 21 overall, and about the best news for the Friars coming out of Friday is that he looked healthy and ready for next week.
But he’s about all that went right for PC.
The Friars started the game 5-for-16 from the field as they failed to find a rhythm against Creighton’s stifling defense, and couldn’t match the Bluejays’ hot shooting. They managed to keep it close but the game turned over the final seven minutes of the first half. Creighton went on a 17-2 run to end the half – which included 10 points from Arthur Kaluma.
The backbreaker came when PC big man Ed Croswell’s outlet pass was intercepted by Kaluma, who proceeded to immediately knock down a crushing 3.
The Friars never recovered from that.
“I thought we pressed and it just snowballed and snowballed,” Cooley said. “We didn’t play well. …
“We missed some shots. We missed layups. We missed a couple of wide-open shots that we’d been making, and then we pressed.”
Down 42-27 at the half, it only got worse for PC.
Needing a quick start to the second half, the Friars went backward. Their first two offensive possessions resulted in air balls and shot clock violations. The Bluejays never settled, scoring the half’s first 14 points. Cooley even called three timeouts in the span of 1:35, the last one coming with the Friars down 25.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve ever done that,” Cooley said. “I tried to change their rhythm, tried to get our attention. Obviously that didn’t work.”
The Friars, who finished with a 30.8% mark from the field, including 3-for-24 from downtown, didn’t even score a field goal until Durham’s transition layup with 12:37 remaining, which ended a drought of more than nine minutes. They never even remotely threatened to make a run, falling behind by 31 early in the second half and by 32 with less than two minutes to go.
Nate Watson, whose 27 points on Thursday powered the Friars, was limited to just five points, silenced by Creighton big man Ryan Kalkbrenner.
The Friars now face a need to respond next week or experience further disappointment of a magical season cut too short. They’ve shown great resilience all season, never losing two games in a row. And when they lost by 32 at Marquette on Jan. 4, they reacted by winning eight games in a row.
Cooley reminded them of that fact in the locker room postgame on Friday.
“But we don’t need to win eight,” Cooley said. “We don’t need to win eight. Whatever it is, I know it’s not eight.”
Cooley, as he has all season, has faith in his group, and knows there’s a great opportunity ahead of them that they’ve earned.
“I just want them to understand that it is only one game,” Cooley said. “We’re a confident group. I’m very proud of this group. I love this team. And our best basketball is ahead of us.”