NEW YORK – Midway through the second half, when Ed Cooley decided to ditch the jacket of an impeccable gray three-piece suit, you knew things were about to ramp up.
Maybe it was because he was feeling hot – literally and figuratively, considering his team had trailed by double digits for most of its Big East tournament semifinal match – or maybe it was to send a message.
Whatever Cooley’s reason was, it worked.
Cooley – one of the most underrated head coaches in college basketball – watched as his Friars completed a comeback that usually only happens in Hollywood. For the third time this season, Providence would deliver a crushing blow to one of the Big East’s elite, beating No. 3 Xavier 75-72, and reaffirm its growing reputation as giant killers.
“You’re prepared to win,” Cooley said. “I hope our team is born with swag. We’re built for that, we’re built for the moment. That’s just real.”
So much of the reason Cooley’s Friars have been able to shine in these most intense moments is because the ship is often steered by Kyron Cartwright, a 5-foot-11 senior guard who, more often than not, wills his team to victory.
“We knew we had to pick each other up and bring that intensity,” Cartwright said. “Coach is not out there with us the whole time, but we had a moment where we had to hold each other accountable.”
That includes holding himself to the high standard he’s set for this program. Cartwright led the Big East in assists this year – the sixth time in seven years a Friar has done so – and has scored 1,000 points in his Providence career, but sometimes, like Friday, he simply doesn’t have it.
“When we came out and started the half I had a little conversation with Makai [Ashton-Langford] and I told him I needed him to help me,” Cartwright said.
Ashton-Langford, a freshman, wouldn’t let his leader down. Trailing 52-35, Ashton-Langford started the furious comeback, assisting on or scoring the first three baskets before handing the keys back to Cartwright and another freshman, Nate Watson.
Cartwright and Watson would account for 17 of the Friars next 23 points, leaving the Friars and Musketeers tied at 64 with less than four minutes to play.
“Nate is a wrecking ball,” Cooley said. “He was big time today. I thought his energy, his spirit, his length [were unbelievable].”
Young and old, chiseled experience and raw talent, a leader and the next generation.
“Seniors have to step up to the moment and help the team,” Cartwright said. “I thought I did that tonight and I’m going to try and do that tomorrow night to hopefully try to will my team to a championship.”
With the comeback complete, all that was left was to finish the job.
Leading by one with 12 seconds remaining in overtime, it was time for Cartwright to make a play again, this time on the defensive end.
As Xavier senior guard J.P. Macura barreled across halfcourt and into the lane, Cartwright – who gives up at least six inches and 20 pounds to Macura – set his feet and drew a crucial charging foul, all but clinching the victory for Providence.
“Kyron does a great job selling it, giving up his body, being very, very selfless,” Cooley said.
“Tough call for [the refs] to make, but probably the right call,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack admitted.
Moments later, with the screams of Providence’s band, fans, dancers, and cheerleaders still echoing in the tunnels of Madison Square Garden, Cooley walked into the news conference.
The jacket was still gone, in place of it Cooley had a blue towel to wipe the sweat off after an intense game – the same kind of sweat an opposing coach will be dealing with should they find Providence matched up against them in the big dance next week.
“Excuse me for a second here, just trying to get my emotions in check here,” Cooley said, still visibly shaking before taking a sip of water.
Cooley had lost his jacket and his composure, but he, and his Friars, still had what mattered most: That winners’ swag.