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Bryce Cotton steals Big East spotlight for Providence in victory

Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Bryce Cotton played all 40 minutes against Creighton, scoring 23 huge points.

NEW YORK -- A senior, once overlooked, was owning the new Big East tournament. Doug McDermott, the 6-foot-8 Ames, Iowa, kid who -- you know the story by now -- couldn't get a scholarship from his own pops at Iowa State or any other major-conference team, but will soon win the Naismith and Wooden awards at Creighton, had lived up to the hype at Madison Square Garden.

He combined to score 67 points in the quarter- and semi-finals, breaking Allen Iverson's record for most points in a player's first two Big East tourney games. And with a late barrage of deep threes on Saturday night, McDermott was threatening to lead the 14th-ranked Bluejays to a comeback win over Providence in the championship game. But when his deepest bomb yet front-rimmed with 30 seconds left, the Friars pulled away with a 65-58 win that moved them off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament. Not only that, but someone not named McBuckets stood on a platform at center court, holding a Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Another senior, once overlooked, willed his team to the new Big East tournament title. Bryce Cotton scored 23 points (to McDermott's 27) and played all 40 minutes, as the 6-1 point guard nearly always does for Providence. The NCAA record book tracks points -- next year's edition will list McDermott as the No. 2, 3, 4 or 5 scorer of all-time, depending on what he pours in in the coming weeks -- and a multitude of other statistics, but not single-season minutes, so we do not know where Cotton ranks all-time. What we know is that he averages 39.9 minutes per game and an absurd 41.9 minutes in Big East regular-season play, due to an abundance of overtimes. He's an ironman with a rise to stardom even more unlikely than McDermott's.

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Cotton brought his mother, Yvonne, to center court at the Garden to help him accept his M.O.P. award. Her text to him that morning had been, "Good luck, show out, keep the faith." Cotton had shown out -- at one point in the second half, after converting a four-point play that was set up by a gorgeous crossover, he had 17 points to McDermott's 11. Cotton had kept the faith that his Friars could upset a team that gave them a 15-point "hind-kicking" (his words) just a week earlier in Omaha; and he'd kept believing, for four years, that he'd someday reach an NCAA tournament.

The Cottons are from Tucson, Ariz., and he was so lowly regarded as a point guard coming out of Palo Verde High Magnet School that he had zero Division I scholarship offers in the August after he graduated. He figured he'd have to attend a junior college for at least one season. Cotton's AAU coach with the Arizona Magic, Anthony Ray, who made the trip to the Big East tourney along with Yvonne and Bryce's older brother, Justin Tarpley, had worked the phones to no avail. "I called 100 colleges, and if they needed a point guard, I'd tell them, 'I've got a kid you would really like and should take a hard look at," Ray said. "But all guys care about is, who else is recruiting him? And I'd say, 'To be honest with you, nobody. But he's a really good player, just take a chance. Trust me.'"

In a last-ditch effort to drum up exposure, Tarpley contacted a former high school teacher of his in Tucson who'd formerly been a basketball manager at Providence. "I asked him if he still had any connections, and he said he'd see what he could do," Tarpley said. "So I gave him a copy of Bryce's highlight tape."

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Ray received a call from an assistant on Keno Davis' Providence staff, Chris Davis, who'd seen that tape's footage of Cotton beating current Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson in a dunk contest. "I heard you've got a good guard," Davis said, and Ray told him, "I don't know if he's good enough to play in the Big East, but he's pretty good." The Friars were hoping they'd found a diamond in the rough, 2,500 miles away.

When the scholarship offer finally came, shortly before the fall semester was to begin at Providence, Ray called Yvonne and broke the news. "[Ray] and I both cried," she said. "I had faith. Bryce just needed an opportunity."

Four years later, Ray and Yvonne were standing amid a post-game, on-court celebration in New York, once again wiping tears out of their eyes. Cotton's opportunity had yielded the best of endings, even though the entire story was far from perfect. He'd nearly transferred in 2012 when Providence fired Keno Davis and brought in Ed Cooley from Fairfield. And when Cotton's senior season began, he was playing off the ball, only taking over point-guard duties when five-star freshman Kris Dunn suffered a season-ending injury in December. Cotton didn't necessarily become a household name -- "He's a world-class athlete, but he doesn't show off, so people don't always notice it," said Providence assistant Brian Blaney -- but he earned respect in Big East circles for leading the Friars to a 10-8 league record (and 20-10 overall) that put them on the NCAA bubble heading into the conference tournament.

Cotton's season scoring average is 21.3 points, and after he put up 12 and 18, respectively, in wins over St. John's (on Thursday) and Seton Hall (Friday), Creighton coach Greg McDermott was worried. "I was scared to death of the fact that he didn't shoot it good the first two games because, in my mind, I'm saying, There's no way Bryce Cotton's having three bad games shooting the basketball in a row," McDermott said.

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Cotton was due for a big night on Saturday, and his coaches were urging him to take over in a national showcase against Doug McDermott. Providence legend God Shammgod, the point guard who led the Friars to the 1997 Elite Eight, now works with the team as an undergraduate assistant; he told Cotton prior to the game, "You've gotta seize the moment. Doug is history. He's the fifth-leading scorer of all-time, and nobody can take that away from him. But you can still make some Providence history. We haven't won the Big East tournament in 20 years, and you're going against the best player in the country. What more do you need?"

Nothing, it turned out: Cotton connected on 8-of-18 shots and all four of his free throws en route to scoring 23. He only committed one turnover despite doing the bulk of the ballhanding; he never took a second of rest, and he helped Providence earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004.

He even wowed McBuckets. "[Cotton] was kind of murdering us," McDermott said. "I couldn't imagine playing that many minutes a game, especially as a point guard, being involved in every play. He deserves so much credit."

Cooley, who was born in Providence, led a Providence high school team to a state title, and returned to his hometown to take the Friars' head job two seasons ago, ascended a ladder late on Saturday night so he could reach one of the Garden's nets. Nearly all of his players had already taken their turn with the scissors. Cooley snipped off a piece but declined to take the whole thing. He saved the last snip for a kid he'd describe as a second-half "Superman" -- a senior who'd come all the way to Rhode Island from Arizona, four years ago, with no hype and not a single other scholarship offer.

Bryce Cotton got the net around his neck, and, he said, vindication that Providence belonged in the NCAA tournament. He had stated a few times at this Big East tournament that he began the season thinking these Friars were special, but couldn't figure out why they were special. Asked after Saturday's game if he finally knew the reason, Cotton surveyed the joyous scene playing out in front of him and said only, "Here it is." It was an answer open to interpretation, and so here is one: Providence, like its point guard, was destined for a late peak.

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