NEW YORK – After tearing apart the top seed, Creighton has another chance to finally finish the job at the Big East Tournament.
Arthur Kaluma scored 17 points and triggered an overwhelming blitz that sent the surging Bluejays into the championship game with a stunning 85-58 blowout of No. 11 Providence in the semifinals Friday night.
“We beat a really good team – a championship team. And we did it our way. We did it with defense,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We were pretty special tonight on both ends of the floor.”
Alex O’Connell had 18 points and Ryan Kalkbrenner added 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks as the fourth-seeded Bluejays (22-10) reached their fourth conference final since joining the league before the 2013-14 season.
They’re still looking for their first Big East Tournament title.
Trey Alexander scored all 15 of his points after halftime and Ryan Hawkins grabbed 12 rebounds for Creighton, which has all but wrapped up an NCAA Tournament bid by winning nine of 11 down the stretch. Particularly impressive, the Bluejays are 4-2 since losing point guard Ryan Nembhard, the Big East freshman of the year, to a season-ending wrist injury.
The surprising Bluejays, picked eighth in the Big East preseason poll with no starters back from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, will play eighth-ranked and second-seeded Villanova – a 63-60 winner over No. 20 UConn in the nightcap – for the championship Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“Our young team doesn’t play like a young team anymore. They’ve grown up,” McDermott said.
Al Durham had 21 points on a rare miserable night this season for the Friars (25-5), who won their first regular-season conference championship after 43 years in the Big East as a charter member.
It was the most lopsided defeat for a No. 1 seed in Big East Tournament history.
“We picked a bad time to play bad in a great arena,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “I just want them to understand that it is only one game.”
The game was tied at 25 late in the first half before Kaluma, one of three Bluejays on the Big East all-freshman team, scored 10 points in a 12-0 run that put Creighton in command for good. He started the spurt with a three-point play and capped it with a 3-pointer off his own steal.
“Throughout the game I was telling myself, let it come to you, don’t try to force anything,” Kaluma said. “The last six minutes the ball was finding me and I was hitting my shots. So it was working out.”
The Bluejays, who ranked first in the Big East in field goal percentage defense (40%) and second in scoring defense (67.5 ppg) during conference games, went into the break ahead 42-27 after holding Providence to 28% shooting and 2 for 12 from 3-point range.
The veteran Friars finished at 31%, including 3 of 24 on 3s.
“I think we forced Providence into a lot of mid-range stuff and I think that frustrated them,” McDermott said. “We’ve grown leaps and bounds defensively from the start of the season.”
Playing with swagger, Creighton stormed out of halftime, too, scoring the first 14 points as Cooley called his final three timeouts in the first four minutes.
“Probably the first time I’ve ever done that,” he said. “Obviously that didn’t work.”
Two free throws by Durham finally stopped the 19-0 surge spanning halftime and drew a Bronx cheer from the Providence-heavy crowd.
“I still think we’re at 25 points, and we’re an hour after the game,” Cooley said.
By the time the onslaught was over, the Bluejays had outscored Providence 31-2 in about 10 1/2 minutes and 35-4 to build a 60-29 cushion.
Providence center Nate Watson, who bullied Butler down low for a season-best 26 points in the quarterfinals, managed only five on 2-for-7 shooting in a one-sided matchup with the 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner, the Big East defensive player of the year.
“Kalkbrenner played amazing,” Kaluma said. “It was everything for us.”
In their only previous meeting this season, Providence clinched the Big East regular-season crown with a 72-51 blowout of Creighton before a frenzied home crowd on Feb. 26.
“We played them on a night when I’m not sure the Golden State Warriors could have went in there and won,” McDermott said Thursday. “That place was electric. And the town was rocking. And they kind of pounced on us late in that first half. We weren’t really able to get our footing.”
The other scheduled game was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. But the rematch was much different.
“Our guys have a lot of pride,” McDermott said.
Providence starting guard A.J. Reeves was shaken up and wobbled off the court after colliding with Hawkins with the Bluejays up by 29 and 8:49 remaining.
Creighton: Since joining the Big East, the Bluejays are 4-0 in conference tournament semifinals but 0-3 in championship games, including a blowout loss to No. 8 seed Georgetown last year.
“We haven’t been able to kick that door down. Hopefully tomorrow is the time to do that,” McDermott said.
Providence: The nature of this blowout loss will fuel critics who say the Friars have been fortunate to win so many close games. But it’s been a scintillating ride through the Big East during one of the greatest seasons in school history, and now they can sit back and celebrate a fairly high NCAA Tournament seed come Selection Sunday.
“We’re a confident group. Our best basketball’s ahead of us,” Cooley said. “We’ve got some warts just like everybody else, but we’ll get better.”
Creighton split two games against Villanova early in the regular season, with the home team winning by a wide margin each time.