Big East takeaways: Sean Miller’s halftime speech sparks Xavier rally

Note: John Fanta is sharing information on the action throughout the Big East tournament.

Game 3: Xavier 89, DePaul 84

NEW YORK — This was not Xavier. The Musketeers looked like a shell of themselves at the half in Manhattan, trailing 10th-seeded DePaul 49-40 and allowing the Blue Demons to shoot nearly 70 percent in the first half.

Where was the team that went 23-8 in the regular season and is ranked 11th in the country?

Sean Miller didn’t hold back in the half-time dressing room, handing it to his team and taking on young star Colby Jones, who had been quiet with four points.

“That’s the kind of relationship we have,” Jones said after the game. “He knows when to stick with me, and I know what he means when he does. We’ve grown a trust.”

That trust between Miller and his players was felt late in the game. The Musketeers, who have wilted in this spot in recent years, punched back to rally from 13 down and beat DePaul 89-84.

The Blue Demons got inspired efforts from Umoja Gibson (22 points, six assists) and Nick Ongenda (16 points). They led for more than 36 minutes, holding an 80-75 lead with 3:55 left. But with the game hanging in the balance, Xavier closed.

Jack Nunge of Xaviers posts a double-double

Jack Nunge of Xaviers posts a double-double

Jack Nunge dominated DePaul with 23 points and 10 rebounds to help Xavier advance to the Big East semifinals.

Jones hit back-to-back buckets, after a layup and two straight offensive rebounds, Jack Nunge gave the Musketeers a lead they would not relinquish.

Jones and Nunge combined for 45 points, while Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel each had 16 for the nation’s fifth-most efficient offense.

Separately, the game marked Sean Miller’s return to the Big East Tournament. The former Pitt Panthers guard (1987-92) played in the event once.

“I took my time to soak it all in tonight,” Miller said. “New York City is a special place, and this building holds a place in the hearts of anyone who has the opportunity to be a part of this tournament. For Xavier to play on a Friday night at Madison Square Garden, that’s what we’re here to do.”

A nugget: Xavier went 7-0 all-time in the Big East quarterfinal round. The Musketeers play the Creighton/Villanova winner on Friday at 9pm ET.

Game 2: UConn 73, Providence 66

With just over 12 minutes to play at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, it seemed like a foregone conclusion.

UConn had run Providence off the floor to that point, leading the Friars 58-32. The most anticipated match of the tournament looked like it was going to end up boring… and then something happened.

It was as if the ghosts of Big East tournaments past came out to remind the 19,812 inside The Garden that a game is never over at this event. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun about a game in 2009.

Ed Cooley’s Friars rallied, applying defensive pressure and mixing in a zone defense. The Providence faithful in the stands went from a state of humiliation to a glimmer of hope, to a developing belief that they could win the game, to true confusion in New York.

And when Providence cut the lead to 63-58 with 3:46 on the clock, Connecticut took the wheel with the formula this team has gone to in key moments of its recent surge: a killer 3-pointer by Jordan Hawkins.

The sophomore, who will hear his name called in the NBA Draft this June, finished with 19 points in his Big East Tournament debut (he missed last year with a concussion) as UConn avoided the upset comeback with a 73-66 victory over the Friars. .

Jordan Hawkins scores game-high 19 against Providence

Jordan Hawkins scores game-high 19 against Providence

UConn advanced to the Big East semifinals with a win over the Friars.

“We played as good as you can in the first 28 minutes of the game, and as bad as you can in the next eight,” Dan Hurley said after the 11th-ranked Huskies’ win. “But I give Providence credit for not giving up. They’re a good team that’s well coached. But I thought we made the final plays we needed to win a war.”

It was certainly a war and a showcase for everything the Big East Tournament is about.

“Tell me another arena in America, another conference in America that has this level of excitement for a game like this,” Ed Cooley said after the loss. “That’s why the Big East is special. That’s why the relationship between the Big East and Madison Square Garden is unique; there’s no other conference tournament in the United States that’s as great, not good, great.”

The level of physicality was uncovered. Throughout the stretch, the referees put their whistles in their pockets for both teams to decide the game. This is how Dave Gavitt intended 1979 to be.

For all the talk about the “old” Big East and the “new” Big East, Thursday afternoon’s conference tournament session was the final point of validation: It simply is the Big East. The league has stood the test of time, and when it’s championship week in college hoops, it has a prime seat at the table because of the atmosphere it creates from Manhattan.

Taking more out of the performance, Connecticut was a powerhouse in the first half, getting off to a great start and leading 35-19 at halftime.

Andre Jackson Jr. was in full form in his do-it-all role for the Huskies, with nine points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Adama Sanogo had 10 and five rebounds on a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor. But underneath the Huskies’ regular top contributors was a big performance off the bench from regular starter Tristen Newton.

“In terms of the opening piece, our culture is very important. I just felt like sending a little message to Tristen,” Hurley said.

Andre Jackson Jr. from UConn with an incredible dunk

Andre Jackson Jr.  from UConn with an incredible dunk

Andre Jackson Jr. couldn’t be stopped at halftime as he threw a wild dunk in the first half against Providence.

Newton performed in his starting role, scoring 16 points with seven assists to just one turnover in 27 minutes.

“Usually when players are put in that situation, they melt down,” Hurley added. “I was amazed at his mental toughness and being able to put it behind him and perform at a high level.”

The Huskies are known for their defense, length and pace. But what it showed Thursday afternoon was just how dangerous this team is when shooting from the perimeter. Connecticut shot 13-for-30 from beyond the arc, with Newton and Hawkins combining for seven treys. When these things happen, UConn is good for the Final Four.

Ed Cooley agreed.

“Name me a team that plays better than the team we just played,” he said. “And I’m a basketball junkie. I can’t see a better team than the University of Connecticut right now.”

The Friars, a 9-seed project in Mike DeCourcy’s latest forecast, have dropped three in a row, but should be on the right side of the NCAA Tournament equation on Sunday.

The Huskies will meet top-seeded Marquette Friday night at 6:30 pm ET on FS1 for a trip to the Big East Championship Game. The two teams have never met in the conference tournament.

Game 1: 72 Marquette St. John’s 70, OT

With less than two minutes left in overtime in front of a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, St. John’s again cut Marquette’s lead to one.

Shaka Smart had no doubts about who he was going to ride down the stretch, and the Golden Eagles reminded everyone why they earned the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament, as well as coach and player of the year honors of the conference

Tyler Kolek, the former 3-star recruit who began his college career at George Mason after being overlooked, had the ball in his hands with a Friday night in New York City on the line. But this time, one of the nation’s assists leaders wasn’t delivering. He was finishing with steal after steal at the basket, scoring the final seven points of the game as the Golden Eagles held off the St. John’s 72-70 in overtime to advance to the semifinals of the Big East tournament for the first time since 2019.

“We needed someone to step up and be the guy for our team to finish,” Smart said. “If you’re in that position and you have the best player in this conference, I’m taking my chances with him. We did that and he delivered.”

The excitement of the Golden Eagles?

“In the locker room, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a sense of relief from our guys,” Smart added. “Being the top seed in this tournament, our plan was to come here and go on a run this week. Big credit to St. John’s because they had a great game plan and they never went away. I give credit to our guys because they didn’t. don’t give in.”

Marquette defeats St. John’s in overtime

Marquette defeats St.  John's in overtime

The Golden Eagles held off the Red Storm after Posh Alexander missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

The overtime win marked Marquette’s biggest comeback from a halftime deficit this season, as the Johnnies set the tone with an inspired effort to take a 36-26 halftime lead. Posh Alexander had a clear look for the win from beyond the arc late in the overtime period, but fell short. Despite a clutch 16-point effort from Dylan Addae-Wusu and double-doubles from Joel Soriano and David Jones, it wasn’t enough for a Red Storm team that fell to 18-15 on the season after start the year 11-1.

It’s a familiar return for the Johnnies, who have gone four years without an NCAA Tournament under Mike Anderson, leading to talk that change is on the way in Queens.

Anderson was asked after the game about his future in Queens and deflected the question, wishing everyone a great day.

Soriano, a senior who has another year of eligibility, went to bat for his head coach after the game, stating that he would only return if Anderson returned to Queens.

While an era might be ending in New York, Marquette showed the toughness that Smart has created in Milwaukee with a big defensive second half to get back into the game, keeping St. John’s to just 25 points in the last 20 minutes.

It will be UConn or Providence for the Golden Eagles at 6:30 pm ET Friday on FS1 for a ticket to the Big East championship game. Marquette will be looking for its first appearance in program history.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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