NEW YORK - If for some reason you had waited until the eve of his third and final NCAA tournament to watch Doug McDermott do his thing, Thursday would have been a fitting (if questionably delayed) introduction. With his pregame hypnosis-and-meat-loaf routine seemingly working its usual wonders, the inevitable national player of the year put on a show against DePaul at the World's Most Famous Arena®, draining seven threes in the opening period en route to an event-record 27 points before halftime. He added a relatively modest eight after the break to finish with 35 points (on 14-of-22 shooting) in an 84-62 Creighton win, the first blowout of what to that point had been a tournament defined by tightness. By the time McDermott had hit his third three in less than two minutes, drawing a swell of applause from the decidedly pro-Creighton crowd and many others surely won over by what they were witnessing, his team had an 11-point first half lead from which it would never look back.
"I've seen some good ones out of him," Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said of his son's dominant first half, "but that was about as good as it gets."
McDermott's outburst puts him 20 points behind former Texas Southern great Henry Kelly for fifth place on Division I's all-time scoring list. That margin could very well be erased Friday night vs. Xavier, against whom he totaled 62 points in two meetings this season, in which the teams traded six-point home victories. The win also helps keep the Bluejays -- who got 11 points and nine assists from Austin Chatman, and 14 points from Jahenns Menigat -- firmly in the Big East tournament's driver seat after (spoiler alert!) regular season champ Villanova was shocked by eight-seed Seton Hall in the matinee session. The Big East's top surviving dogs will meet the Musketeers in Friday's late game, and the Blue Demons head back to Chicago having to take solace in having at least ruined everything for Georgetown.
Seton Hall 64, Villanova 63: Perhaps you've already seen what happened in this one, but let's watch it again because finishes like this are kind of what we're all here for.
For those unable to watch, Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs drilled a Kemba-esque stepback jumper as time expired to pull off the first real stunner of conference tournament week and almost certainly put to rest any visions Villanova had of drawing a one seed on Sunday night. As detailed here by Luke Winn, the Pirates stole the win by denying the Wildcats the threes that have become their lifeblood, and in the process provided a head-turning illustration of how precarious Villanova's supremacy may be.
Big-picture implications aside, the game was simply a thrill to watch, with seven lead changes and three ties in the final five minutes. Villanova freshman reserve Josh Hart, who bettered his season average by 11 points with 18 in the game, put the Wildcats up two on a layup in transition with 41 seconds to play, only for Gibbs to find Jaren Sina, another first-year player, for a corner three to put Seton Hall back ahead. On the other end it was Darrun Hilliard -- whose 11 points all came after halftime -- who answered by rolling a floater off the iron with 7.8 seconds left, giving Villanova the 63-62 advantage it would lose on Gibbs's game-winner.
Seton Hall, which finished the regular season 6-12 in the Big East and pushed its record a game above .500 with the win, got its second strong performance in as many nights from big man Gene Teague, who carried the Pirates with 19 points and 12 rebounds while still shaking off the effects of the flu. He will have little time to recover before meeting Providence on Friday in the founders' portion of the Big East semis.
Providence 79, St. John's 74: "This was clearly a game of runs," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said at the opening of his press conference, and though it was his Red Storm that orchestrated perhaps the game's most impressive one, it was ultimately not enough. In what many billed (accurately, most likely) as a sort of play-in to the NCAA tournament, the Friars were the ones doing the last-minute resume burnishing, withstanding a 22-6 run from St. John's in the closing minutes to move on to their first Big East semifinal in 17 years.
Providence was able to pull out the win despite the rough outing endured by star point guard Bryce Cotton, who made just one of 10 field goal attempts. Stepping into the void was sophomore backcourt-mate Josh Fortune, whose career-high 24 points were keyed by four-of-seven shooting from beyond the arc. Forwards LaDontae Henton (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Kadeem Batts (13 points, 12 rebounds) added double-doubles in support, helping the Friars steadily balloon what was a three-point advantage at halftime into a 63-46 lead with 6:27 to play. Thus began the Red Storm's run, led by eight points from Orlando Sanchez and seven from D'Angelo Harrison, the latter of whom finished with 21 points, 10 boards, and four assists. After Harrison converted a pair of free throws with 1:15 remaining, Providence's lead was down to one. But St. John's would not score for another minute, during which Cotton and Fortune went four-for-four from the line. After a couple exchanges of buckets and free throws, it was over.
St. John's is not necessarily done; Providence coach Ed Cooley, for one, thinks the Red Storm - which sits 57th in the RPI, with a 20-12 record and the nation's 48th most difficult schedule -- should still get an invite to the dance. But for now all Lavin & co. can do is look on with crossed fingers. The Friars, meanwhile, will have to end Seton Hall's surprising run to avoid offsetting Thursday's boost to their at-large chances by suffering a bad loss. And should they do so, they will play Saturday night for the right to render any remaining questions regarding their invitation moot.
Xavier 68, Marquette 65: There those who would argue that this win solidified Xavier's NCAA invitation, and when a radio reporter prefaced a question that way in Thursday's post-game press conference, Musketeers coach Chris Mack interrupted. "I like those people," he deadpanned.
Those people are likely to include many on the NCAA selection committee. Xavier's quarterfinal win was less about its victory over Marquette, now a 17-15 team hoping for the NIT to call this Sunday, than it was about avoiding the type of late-season defeat against a non-tourney team that does one no favors when the tournament field is being constructed. The Golden Eagles made them earn it, jumping out to a 10-3 lead and controlling most of the first half on the backs of forward Deonte Burton (who would finish with a game-high 23 points) and reserve big man Davante Gardner (who scored eight of his nine points before halftime). But the Muskies took charge after the break, getting seven points from center Matt Stainbrook, who had not practiced since straining his left MCL against Seton Hall 10 days ago and was not expected to suit up as recently as four hours before tip-off. A succession of free throws -- four from Justin Martin, two from Semaj Christon -- helped Xavier open a five-point lead in the final minute before Marquette's Todd Mayo hit a three from the wing to cut the lead to two with 29 seconds left. Christon made just one of two free throws on the other end, opening the door for more Mayo heroics, but the junior missed twice (once just after coach Buzz Williams had signaled for a timeout that nullified the shot, and once more off the ensuing inbounds play), and Christon corralled the long rebound to begin rounding out the game's end.
The Musketeers' reward is a third meeting with Creighton and McDermott, whose excellence they got to know a bit too well during league play. When Mack was asked in the press conference what you to do combat a player like that, he took the opportunity to again display his sense of humor. "You just shut him down," he cracked with a smile, then seemed resigned to something more realistic. "You just try your best... You try to deny his catches. You try to load to the ball. You try to contest his shots. And when you swallow a couple threes, you can't think it's the end of the world."