On a night where No. 11 Providence was absolutely pounded on the offensive glass, it was the fourth chance that the Friars gave No. 6 North Carolina that finally did them in.
With the game tied at 77, James Michael McAdoo grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul with just 3.5 seconds left. He hit the first free throw but missed the second, grabbing his own rebound and getting fouled again. And again, he hit the first and missed the second, but this time Bryce Cotton booted the ball out of bounds and that was it.
The Tar Heels advanced to face the winner of No. 3 Iowa State and No. 14 North Carolina-Central with a thrilling, 79-77 win over the Friars.
And the bulk of the work was done by the UNC front court. McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for 42 points and 23 boards, 13 of which came on the offensive end of the floor. UNC had 21 offensive rebounds in total and 26 second chance points. Marcus Paige hit a handful of huge shots down the stretch — including a three with a minute left from the top of the key that, you guessed it, came off of an offensive rebound — but if it wasn’t for the work of the front line, UNC would not have been in that position.
The win also means that North Carolina’s fascinatingly weird season will continue for at least one more game. Remember, this is a team that was left for dead twice this season, which just so happened to be sandwiched by wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
For Providence, the loss could not have been more heartbreaking. They missed a shot that could have put them ahead with 35 seconds left. They missed a pair of opportunities to get the ball back with a chance to win at the buzzer. And, most importantly, they wasted one of the best performances that you will see all tournament.
Bryce Cotton, the 6-foot star point guard for the Friars, finished with 36 points, eight assists, five boards and at least half-a-dozen dazzling, ankle-breaking buckets during a stretch in the second half when he took over. The Friars were down by as much as 11 in the second before Cotton took over.
The good news? For the first time in his career, Cotton was truly appreciated for the talent that he is. The bad news? It had to happen in the final game of his senior season.
During Ed Cooley’s tenure at Providence, just when it seemed as if the program was turning the corner something would go wrong. Whether it was an injury or a suspension, it always seemed as if the Friars were being forced to fight with a hand tied behind their back due to a lack of depth.
But the key for Providence is that they continued to fight, and on Saturday night the program earned a reward in the form of its first Big East tournament crown since 1994. Bryce Cotton, who struggled offensively in wins over St. John’s and Seton Hall, scored 23 points to lead Providence to a 65-58 win over No. 14 Creighton and remove any doubt as with regard to their NCAA tournament prospects.
Cotton’s led the way for Providence all season long, playing an average of more than 40 minutes per game and scoring 21.3 points and dishing out 5.9 assists per contest. But in order for the Friars to win three games in as many days he needed help, and sure enough his teammates stepped forward. Josh Fortune (ten points vs. Creighton) scored 24 points against St. John’s, with LaDontae Henton (nine points, 13 rebounds) going for 26 and 14 in the win over Seton Hall.
With those contributions, along with those of Kadeem Batts, Carson Desrosiers and Tyler Harris, Providence positioned itself to have the star take them home and Cotton did just that.
Providence’s defense was as important as Cotton’s offensive production, as their 2-3 zone limited the Bluejays to 8-for-30 shooting from beyond the arc. Against a team as good as Creighton is offensively identifying shooters is critical, and Providence did a good job of this for much of the night. Rebounding in the zone can be an issue for some teams but it wasn’t for Providence, which limited Creighton to just seven offensive rebounds and won the battle on the boards 32-29.
Doug McDermott, the focus of Providence’s defensive efforts, scored 18 of his 27 points in the second half and the Bluejays were able to pull to within three with 2:29 remaining. But two Batts free throws reestablished the separation Providence worked so hard for, and they were able to make the plays needed to close out the game.
This week wasn’t easy for Providence, but neither was the season as a whole. With limited numbers the Friars continued to fight, never losing sight of their goal. And on Saturday night, the Friars were rewarded for their efforts with a Big East title.
In the immediate aftermath of Providence’s win over St. John’s on Thursday, many held the belief that the Friars had done enough to make the NCAA tournament regardless of what happened in their semifinal matchup with Seton Hall. However with the members of the selection committee being the only ones who truly know the answer (opinion: they’re in), why leave anything to chance?
Also of note was the fact that a win would advance Providence to the Big East tournament final for the first time since 1994, and LaDontae Henton made sure the Friars accomplished that goal. Henton tallied 26 points and 14 rebounds to lead Providence to the 80-74 win over the Pirates, meaning that on Saturday the Friars will play for the conference’s automatic bid.
Providence made 48.9% of its shots from the field and their starters were responsible for 78 of the 80 points scored. That isn’t a surprise for this group, with injuries and the suspension of two freshmen whittling Ed Cooley’s rotation down to six players for most of the season. But Providence has continued to fight and after Bryce Cotton (18 points, ten assists) led them for much of the season his teammates have risen to the challenge in New York.
Friday night it was Henton, one day after guard Josh Fortune scored 24 points to push Providence past the Red Storm. The question now is whether or not Providence will have enough left in the tank to win a third straight game, and if they’re to do so the Friars will need to perform better in the paint.
Seton Hall scored 40 points in the paint, and with a matchup with either Creighton (Doug McDermott) or Xavier (which has multiple interior options) in front of them Providence will need to help Kadeem Batts in this area. Either matchup will be difficult in that regard, but this entire season has been difficult for Providence. And the Friars have continued to fight, reaching this moment as a result.
What will be on the line Saturday night at Madison Square Garden? Not only the chance to leave no doubt when it comes to their NCAA tournament chances but to also take their place in history alongside the 1993-94 Friars, the only Providence team to ever win this event.
In our Big East tournament preview, Providence’s Josh Fortune was highlighted as a potential surprise for Ed Cooley & Co. at Madison Square Garden. The guard remained essentially a three-point specialist during his sophomore season, but unlike his first year at PC, Fortune was much more effective from beyond the arc, converting 36 of his threes (up from 28.9 percent in 2013). That improved shooting was on display during the Friars’ win over St. John’s yesterday: Fortune scored a career-high 24 points, making four of his seven three point attempts and carrying PC while Bryce Cotton suffered his first poor game arguably this season.
After the game, Cooley was effusive when describing Fortune’s game: “I think Josh is a big reason why we’ve grown the last five or six games. He doesn’t shoot the ball enough for me … If you leave [him] open, I think it’s going in every time he shoots it. So he’ll be shooting again tomorrow. If not, we’re going to have a fight.” I spoke with Cooley early this week, and the PC coach had to work hard with Cotton on learning how to balance scoring with setting up the other Friars, a concept it seems Cooley needs to teach to Fortune. When Cooley first took the job, he learned Cotton was the team’s best shooter, but he wouldn’t shoot the ball, preferring to defer. According to Cooley, “When he wouldn’t shoot the ball, I would make the team run, and so I told him he had to shoot unless the team would run.”
Fortune’s offensive appearance has lessened the load on primarily Cotton, but also Kadeem Batts, and as Fortune is able to take control of the Friars’ offense, PC could emerge as the Big East’s bid thief.
As Providence entered Thursday’s Big East quarterfinal game against St. John’s, the Friars were probably counting on senior guard Bryce Cotton to come through in the clutch in what basically amounted to an NCAA Tournament play-in game.
But with both bubble teams in a back-and-forth battle, No. 4 seed Providence was still able to come out on top, despite only one made field goal from its All-American, as the Friars held off the No. 5 seed Red Storm, 79-74, at Madison Square Garden.
Cotton only finished with 12 points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field, but his Providence teammates stepped up in a big way against St. John’s. Sophomore guard Josh Fortune paced the Friars with 24 points while junior forward LaDontae Henton (16 points, 11 rebounds) and senior forward Kadeem Batts (13 points, 12 rebounds) both finished with double-doubles.
Providence (21-11) only played six players in the contest on Thursday but also had double-digit rebounds from forward Tyler Harris (six points, 10 rebounds) and reserve forward Carson Derosiers (eight points, 10 rebounds). All six of Providence’s players that played on Thursday had either double-digit points or rebounds and the balanced team contribution helped offset the off-day from Cotton, who usually averages 21 points a game.
St. John’s (20-12) cut the Providence lead to 69-68 with 43 seconds remaining, but the Friars won possession on a held ball and Cotton buried two free throws on the ensuing possession to help put the game away. The Red Storm mounted a furious comeback, as they trailed 63-48 with 6:07 remaining, but ultimately fell short as they’re likely headed for the NIT. D’Angelo Harrison led St. John’s with 24 points on the afternoon while Rysheed Jordan (17 points) and Jakarr Sampson (15 points) also finished in double-figures.
Providence has found itself in double-overtime four times during Big East play this season. The most recent thriller came on Tuesday night against Marquette with the Friars’ NCAA tournament hopes undoubtedly on the line.
In his 50th minute of action — the fourth time he’s logged every minute of a double-overtime game in the past nine weeks — senior guard Bryce Cotton was able to make two winning plays with less than 10 seconds left and Marquette clinging to a 80-79 lead. As the Golden Eagles inbounded the ball, instead of fouling, Cotton went for a tie up, giving the Friars the ball back with the possession arrow.
Moments later, Cotton was fouled by Derrick Wilson. The once roaring Dunkin’ Donuts Center crowd became utterly silent as he drained his pair of free throws. On senior night, Cotton scored 25 points, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded nine assists in Providence’s 81-80 victory over Marquette. After shaking hands with the Golden Eagles, Cotton, who has racked up 1,207 minutes played in 30 games, had enough energy left in his 6-foot-1, 165-pound body to shout to his older brother, Justin Tarpley, in the stands.
“I was just telling him, ‘I told you. I told you. We did it.’ … stuff like that,” Cotton said. “Because where we come from there’s not a lot of opportunity to go to college and play sports. Since we’re here, you might as well take it as far as you can. That was a brief emotional moment me and my brother shared.”
Growing up on the north side of Tuscon, Cotton was frequently reminded by Justin, 29, of others who had the ability to do something great, only to be sidetracked and eventually lured down the wrong path.
“It wasn’t the best neighborhood to grow up in at a younger age, but my brother did a good job of keeping me away from any gangs that were around my neighborhood,” Cotton said. “He kept me focused. He did all the things an older brother should do.”
The focus drilled into him by his brother has stayed with Cotton. The latest example being his heads up play with nine seconds to go against Marquette, remembering not to foul, rather go for a steal or tie up, which set up Cotton’s heroics.
For someone averaging 40.2 minutes per game, Cotton’s season has largely gone unnoticed, even if he doesn’t mind the lack of national recognition. He’s the reason why Providence is in the conversation for the program’s first NCAA tournament bid in a decade, though, he almost didn’t stick around to lead the charge.
In three seasons at Providence, head coach Ed Cooley has been able to land a handful of prized recruits to his hometown, players which would have given the Friars one of the nation’s most dangerous perimeter attacks. But several of those PC prospects never panned out the way the Friar faithful had envisioned when they had originally committed.
Providence native Ricky Ledo was ruled ineligible before the start of last season, declaring for the NBA draft that spring. Brandon Austin, a four-star small forward, was suspended indefinitely, along with Rodney Bullock, back in November. Austin has since transferred to Oregon.
Kris Dunn, the top point guard in the Class of 2012, has been plagued with shoulder injuries since the summer before his freshman year. He and Vincent Council were sidelined together for eight games last season, leaving ball-handling duties in the hands of Cotton. When it was announced in December that Dunn would beundergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder after appearing in only four games, Cotton was once again entrusted with running the offense.
“It wasn’t tough for me at all,” Cotton said. “People don’t realize that I played point guard my whole life until I came to college, so it wasn’t something that was new to me.
“Basically, it was me wiping off the rust. Due to some unfortunate circumstances I was able to showcase the ability not a lot of people knew I had.”
There weren’t a lot of people that knew much about Cotton as he made the journey from Arizona to Rhode Island to begin his collegiate career. He was not ranked by ESPN, while Rivals posted minimal information about him coming out of Palo Verde Magnet High School in 2010.
His state line reads 21.7 points and 5.9 assists per game. He’s had several clutch performances and his team has exceeded preseason expectations — picked sixth but currently third in the Big East behind two top-15 teams. You wonder why he doesn’t get more praise, more ink. Providence basketball has been down for the better part of a decade, and the Friars are still squarely on the bubble with a week and a half until Selection Sunday.
Then and now he chooses not to concern himself with the spotlight.
“I don’t think anything of it,” Cotton said. “My whole life I’ve flown under the radar and I’ve always had people question me about my play, my size. Honestly, I kind of like it like that. I just go out there and play my game. If people notice me, they do and if they don’t that’s not really my problem. I’m out there to win ball games.”
Tuesday night’s win marks the first time the Friars have won 20 games in a season since 2004. Cotton wants to end this year where that 2003-2004 Friars finished their season: in the NCAA tournament. However two years ago, it appeared Cotton wouldn’t even end his career in a Providence uniform, let alone lead the team to the Big Dance.
Cotton was on the other side of the country, more than 2,500 miles away from his family. Twenty days after his sophomore season came to a close, his grandmother, Mary Portley, passed away at the age of 72.
It was at that point that Cotton, who had just finished his first year playing for Cooley, was thinking about transferring from Providence College.
“The loss of my grandmother really hit me,” he said. “That was the person I was closet to. That really hit me a lot. I didn’t want to be away from the rest of my family after a tough time like that. It had a lot to do with some other things, but that was one of the bigger factors that really hit me mentally.”
He was told to stay at Providence, that things would work out for the best. He grew up with a strong bond with his mother, grandmother and faith, and he needed guidance from all three in order to choose his next move in life. While back at home to attend his grandmother’s funeral, it was his mother, Yvonne Cotton, who passed along a message, which helped him return to Providence for his junior year.
“My mom had told me, my grandmother loved Coach Cooley and thought I would have a bright future there,” Cotton said. “To hear all those people encouraging me to stay and to hear my grandmother think I’d have a great future there as well, I felt that was God answering my prayers.
“From the looks of things, I made the right decision by staying.”
When Cotton went to Cooley, informing him that he may leave the program, Cooley remained patient and allowed Cotton to take the time he needed in order to make a decision. When Cotton elected to return to the Friars, it became the start of a growing relationship between player and coach, as Cotton’s role continued to expand.
“He’s done a really good job of bringing a lot of new attributes out of me, character traits I didn’t think I’d ever show,” Cotton said.
“Coming in I was more a lead by example guy, quiet, kept to myself. He brought to my attention, the importance of bringing along some of the younger guys. He forced me to not only be a vocal leader, but an emotional leader as well.”
Those new attributes Cotton has displayed under the tutelage of Cooley have blended quite well with the virtues his family and faith instilled in him at an early age. The leadership and emotions were there as he exited the Dunkin’ Donut Center floor for the final time, another big performance in another big game for the tournament-hungry Friars.
Regardless of the win on Tuesday, Providence continues to play with little room for error. If the Friars pull off an upset in Omaha, handing Creighton’s its only home loss or rally off some wins next week in New York at the Big East Tournament, then Cotton will get his chance to introduce himself to the nation on college basketball’s biggest stage. Any slip up, and, like his talented basketball career up until this point, it’ll continue to fly under the radar.
“Either we’ll rise to the occasion or we’ll fold,” he said. “I feel that we have too much that we’re playing for. This is something we don’t get another opportunity to do. We gotta do all we can to seize the moment and make sure it happens.”