New York, N.Y. – In what promises to be one of the most wide-open tournaments in recent years, the Big East Tournament started in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night with Providence rolling over Butler 80-57 followed by St. John’s defeating DePaul 82-74. Providence’s victory followed form as the Friars had defeated the Bulldogs both times the teams matched up this season. But St. John’s advanced to the quarterfinals by beating a DePaul team that had defeated the Red Storm in both regular season match-ups.
PROVIDENCE VS BUTLER
Not only did the Friars defeat the Bulldogs the two times they played this season, they did in the last two weeks of the regular season and the teams were meeting for the third time in a 16-day period. Providence opened the game playing a 2-3 zone defense, but not a very tight one. Butler guards Aaron Thompson and Kamar Baldwin attacked the seams of the zone, got into the paint and combined to score the Bulldogs first 10 points as Butler jumped out to a 10-2 lead. “They (Providence) were on their heels to start and we were able to mix up our defenses,” said Butler Coach LaVall Jordan. “When you beat a team twice, there’s going to be a certain amount of energy that the team comes out with the next game,” said Providence Coach Ed Cooley. “I thought we were a little nervous, a little tight and a little antsy.”
e Friars flipped a switch coming out of a time out. Shots that were banging off the rim started to fall. That was especially the case for Providence junior guard Maliek White, who after misfiring on his first three shots from distance, knocked down his next three triples to fuel a 36-17 run for the Friars over the final 14 minutes of the half that gave them a 38-27 lead at intermission. White, who entered the game connecting on 32 percent of his three-point tries in averaging less than one make per game, connected on three-point shots off the catch and dribble to his right. His last triple came with just seconds left on the clock and gave the Friars a nice boost heading into the locker room at halftime.
“After we fell behind 10-2, we settled down and played A-plus basketball,” said Cooley. “Our rotations were good, we shared the ball and guys played with a ton of happiness. Maliek looked like Superman. I’m very proud of Maliek. It’s fun to watch him on this stage.” Cooley then joked that, “He needs to do it again in about 15 hours.” That was in reference to his team’s match-up the next afternoon against top-seeded Villanova. “They started hitting shots and Maliek White hit some big shots to spark them,” said Thompson.
Equally important to the Friars first-half comeback was the all-around play of 6-7 junior wing Alpha Diallo, a New York native playing in his hometown. It isn’t often a wing leads a team in scoring, rebounding and assists, but Diallo leads Providence in all three categories and he put his complete skill set on display for the sellout crowd. In addition to scoring an efficient eight points on five shots in the first half, Diallo pulled down three rebounds and led all players with three assists. He made an interior pass to center Kalif Young for a dunk and found White behind the arc with a skip pass. When Butler assigned either Thompson or Baldwin, both smaller guards standing 6-2 and 6-1 respectively, to guard Diallo, he used his size advantage to back them down and score over them in the paint.
Butler cut the Providence lead to 38-32 when Nate Fowler made a three-point shot early in the second half, but a Diallo corner three off a pass expanded the Friars lead to 50-37. Providence got a strong second half contribution from freshman guard David Duke who scored 11 points after intermission and finished with 15 points on 6 for 8 shooting. Although he has struggled from behind the three-point line this season, Duke made 2-of-3 attempts against the Bulldogs. But what jumps out about Duke is the 200 pounds of mostly muscle he packs on a 6-5 frame. A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Duke figures to be a tough cover for Big East teams for years to come.
“There’s something about this building that fantastic for the Friars,” said Cooley. Providence not only defeated St. John’s at Madison Square Garden during the regular season, but the Friars also won two games at the Garden in last year’s Big East Tournament before falling to Villanova in overtime in the championship game. Meanwhile, the loss dropped Butler’s record to 17-15. “It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Baldwin. “I don’t know if this will be our last game or not. I was proud of the fight we had and just wished out execution was better.”
Providence returns to action on Thursday when it opens a four-game slate of games by taking on Villanova at noon.
DEPAUL VS ST. JOHN’S
With a capacity crowd of over 19.000 predominantly St. John’s fans cheering them on, the Red Storm rode 18-point games from Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon and Mustapha Heron to the 82-74 victory. Playing from ahead for all of the first half but unable to create much separation, St. John’s took a 39-35 lead into intermission before slowing pulling away from the Blue Demons in the second half.
Leading the Red Storm in scoring and third in the Big East with a 19.8 per game average, Ponds has a feel for when to set up his teammates and when to search out his own shot. A left-hand dominant player with a quick first step off the bounce, Ponds made 3-of-4 shots from distance and needed only 11 shots to score 18 points. Second in the conference in assists, Ponds led both teams with seven assists. That he turned the ball over only one time should come as no surprise as he entered the game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5 to 1, tops in the Big East.
Simon is a two-way player. A 6-5 wing with length, he not only defends multiple positions, he does it at a high level. With St. John’s being the only Big East team to defeat second-place Marquette in both meetings this season, Simon can take a lot of credit for helping to hold down the Marquette offense in both games with his ability to defend the high-scoring Marquette guards and wings. Just before the tournament tipped off, the Big East named Simon its defensive player of the year. His assignment against DePaul was to shadow Blue Demons leading scorer Max Strus, a strong 6-6 wing who brought at 19 ppg scoring average with him into the game. Except for closing out too aggressively on Strus to foul him shooting and making a right corner triple in the first half, Simon limited Strus’ impact on the game. He held the DePaul senior to 14 points on a 4-for-12 shooting.