Jalen Brunson (above) and Villanova captured the program's first back-to-back Big East tournament championships. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Austin Petolillo (@AustinPSports)
The 2018 Big East Tournament Championship game felt like a throwback to the old Big East.
It’s only fitting that in a game that resembled that of the old Big East, two teams that were members of the old Big East were squaring off to reign supreme and try to capture a Big East Tournament crown.
“The atmosphere, you know, sold out, you can hear it from the beginning,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “The tough physical play, it was old-school Big East and -- old-school Big East in 2018.”
The original Big East conference, founded in 1979 featured programs like UConn and Syracuse, who would eventually leave the conference, and also featured programs such as Georgetown, St. John’s and Providence, all who are still in the league today. Villanova joined a year later in 1980.
Saturday night was a throwback to the former 16-team behemoth, which became renowned for its physical style of play, with programs like West Virginia, Louisville, Pitt and more in the mix; the current 10 members formed the current iteration after the above three schools and several others left for football reasons.
There were players diving on the floor for loose balls. There was a crowd that was almost a 50-50 split between Villanova and Providence fans and of course, there was drama at the Garden.
After leading by as much as 12 points in the second half, Villanova let Providence crawl back into the game as the Wildcats and Friars had to take it to an extra session.
In overtime though, it was all Villanova.
Outscoring Providence 16-6 in Overtime, Villanova took home their second consecutive Big East Tournament title as they beat Providence 76-66 on Saturday night.
It was the first time that Villanova has won back-to-back conference tournament victories and it was their third conference tournament victory in four years.
“I haven't got to think about that yet,” Wright said. “you know, it's just one year at a time, sometime in the summer you look back at that.”
For a team with so much talent and so much depth, Villanova was led to victory by two players, juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.
Brunson scored 31 points and Bridges finished with 25 and eventually, won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“It feels good, my teammates have my back, they look for me but it’s just a better feeling that we won a championship.” Bridges said when talking about his Most Outstanding Player award.
Up on the podium when the Villanova was awarded their trophy and championship watches, former players Dante Cunningham, Randy Foye, and Kyle Lowry were flanked to the side of the stage, watching their alma mater celebrate.
“That means the world to me,” Wright said. “I'm up there and Kyle is telling them how good Mikal is, and Randy is telling me how good Jalen is; how he's going to do in the NBA, to hear it from those guys means a lot.”
The duo of Bridges and Brunson combined for 56 of Villanova’s 76 points but it was players like Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman who made their contributions felt, even though they weren’t the leaders in the scoring column.
Although scoring only seven points, Paschall hauled in 13 rebounds, six of them being offensive.
“Eric got so many extra possessions for us,” Wright said. “He was credited with six offensive rebounds but there was a number that he tipped free that we came up with.”
Spellman had a similar statline as Paschall as he scored six points and grabbed nine rebounds, but his impact was felt on the defensive end.
“There were a number of possessions he (Spellman) was on Cartwright, the worst possible matchup for us, and he did a great job,” Wright said. “I’m really proud of him.”
Providence was led by sophomore guard Alpha Diallo’s 22 point effort and senior guard Kyron Cartwright’s 19 point game.
Villanova will await to see who it will be facing off against in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday as they will likely be the No. 1 seed in the East region. The first and second round of games will be held in Pittsburgh and the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight will be held in Boston.
Heading into the Big East Tournament, the Friars were sitting squarely on the bubble but after beating tournament team No. 4 seeded Creighton, upsetting No. 1 seed Xavier and taking No. 2 seed Villanova to overtime, Providence should safely be in.
Saturday’s game was also the third consecutive game that Providence took into overtime.
With Madison Square Garden at max capacity, two teams whose campuses and core fanbase is just a train ride away from Penn Station, Saturday’s game provided a great atmosphere for a game that deserves that kind of environment.
An atmosphere like that isn’t abnormal for the Big East Tournament, but even though he’s been coaching in the conference for 17 seasons, Wright still gets chills.
“It always hits me when the game starts and you're standing out there on the line looking at the other team lined up and the colors are out there,” Wright said. “You can just hear the crowd yelling during the National Anthem. That's when it hits me.
“Once the game starts, believe it or not, I can't appreciate it, but when it's over you have that feeling, you have that feeling that you were in that atmosphere, that was incredible.”