Old meets new for Big East title

NEW YORK -- It’ll be old school vs. new school, literally, for the 2014 Big East tournament title.

Founding member Providence will battle new addition Creighton on Saturday, with the conference championship and automatic NCAA tournament bid on the line.

Providence vs. Creighton? Sounds a little funny -- but appropriate, too, given it’s the first championship game of a new era.

The Friars (22-11, 10-8), the No. 4 seed, got here with close wins over St. John’s and Seton Hall. Their path became far less challenging when top-seeded Villanova was upset in the quarterfinals.

Still, Providence has accomplished its primary objective this week -- getting off the NCAA bubble and into the projected field of 68. Now it’ll try to win the Big East tournament for only the second time in school history.

“This was one of our goals coming into the season,” said Providence junior forward LaDontae Henton. “Madison Square Garden -- it’s a big place to play at, a great place to play at, and we just wanted to come in here, and we know we can compete with all the teams in here.”

Providence senior guard Bryce Cotton (21.4 points per game) was the second-leading scorer in the conference in the regular season. But Henton has been the team’s best player in this tournament with a pair of double-doubles -- 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Red Storm, followed by 26 points and 14 rebounds against the Pirates.

“LaDontae was a man-child today, an absolute man-child,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “I always think he’s one of the more underappreciated guys on our team.”

Creighton (26-6, 14-4), the No. 2 seed, has had a little easier time of it this week, with a 22-point victory over DePaul followed by an eight-point win over Xavier. Now the Bluejays will try to win their conference tournament for the third year in a row -- only this time it’s in the Big East.

“It’s just an unreal feeling,” said Creighton center Ethan Wragge. “Five years ago, I was playing in the Missouri Valley, and now today -- or tomorrow at least, we’ll be playing for one of the most historic college tournaments of all time.”

Fellow senior Doug McDermott has not disappointed in New York, pouring in 35 points in the quarterfinals and 32 more in the semis -- breaking the record for most points in a player’s first two Big East tournament games, previously held by Georgetown’s Allen Iverson (58).

The Bluejays lead the nation in 3-pointers per game (10.4) and 3-point percentage (42.7), and shot 11-for-25 from beyond the arc Friday night. Wragge drained five long balls and three other players buried a pair as Creighton avenged a 75-69 loss at Xavier two weeks ago.

“We were 10-for-34 from the 3-point line that night,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father. “I think Doug took 12 3s and was 5-for-12, and I think Ethan was 3-for-9. So two of our best shooters had some decent looks at the basket and didn’t make them.”

Creighton,projected to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament by ESPN's Joe Lunardi as of Saturday morning, will be the favorite Saturday night. But the two teams split their two regular-season meetings. Providence won 81-68 at home on Jan. 18 and lost 88-73 in Omaha just one week ago, in the teams’ regular-season finale last Saturday.

“So we’re both familiar with each other,” McDermott said. “It’s going to be two good teams playing basketball and having the time of their life.”

One year ago, Louisville vs. Syracuse was the matchup in the Big East tournament final, and it was a classic -- the Cardinals rallied from a 16-point deficit with under 16 minutes to play to win by 17 en route to a national championship.

Now we get Providence vs. Creighton -- a different kind of Big East title game, but with similar stakes.

“We’re thrilled. In less than 24 hours, we’re playing for a Big East championship,” McDermott said. “None of us ever dreamed that would be a possibility.”