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No. 11 Providence can clinch Big East title by beating Creighton

Feb 6, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Providence Friars guard Al Durham (1) shoots as Georgetown Hoyas forward Collin Holloway (23) and guard Kaiden Rice (11) look on during the second half at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 6, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Providence Friars guard Al Durham (1) shoots as Georgetown Hoyas forward Collin Holloway (23) and guard Kaiden Rice (11) look on during the second half at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Providence will try for another program first when it hosts Creighton on Saturday night.

The Friars (23-3, 13-2 Big East) achieved a first in school history when they outlasted visiting Xavier 99-92 in triple overtime on Wednesday for their 13th conference victory, the most they’ve ever had in a single season. A win against Creighton (19-8, 11-5) would assure Providence of the first regular-season Big East title in school history, though the Friars did win Big East tournament titles in 1994 and 2014.

As Providence coach Ed Cooley said after the Xavier game, this will be a chance to “try to do something that’s never been done at Providence College, and that’s try to win a regular-season championship.”

“This is one of the most worthy tournament teams I’ve ever been a part of in my 28 years of coaching,” Cooley said. “I don’t know if we’ve been in this situation, this early in the year, to 100% know we’re an NCAA tournament team.”

The Friars had a COVID pause in January that wiped out three games, and they are scheduled to play only 17 conference games instead of 20. They are ahead of Villanova (21-7, 14-4) in terms of Big East winning percentage and overall won-lost record. Beating the Bluejays would render the Friars’ game at Villanova on Tuesday moot in the race for the top spot in the conference, even if the Wildcats win and sweep Providence, then defeat Butler on March 5. The Friars would have a better winning percentage, and that is the determining factor.

Jared Bynum (27 points in 43 minutes) left late in the third overtime with apparent leg cramps. Al Durham (sports hernia), who returned to the lineup after missing one game, had 13 points in 33 minutes.

Cooley said Durham was “really struggling.”

“We’ll see if he can go on Saturday,” the coach said. “I go (with) him if he says he can roll. I trust the players. Sometimes I trust the players more than the science. They tell me when their bodies are ready and when they are not.”

Creighton definitely will be without dynamic freshman point guard Ryan Nembhard (11.3 points, 4.4 assists), who sustained a fractured wrist in an 81-78 victory at St. John’s on Wednesday. He’s gone for the rest of the season.

“We certainly wouldn’t be sitting here tied for third in this league if it wasn’t for him,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said of Nembhard.

Now the focus shifts to backup point guard Trey Alexander, who is averaging 6.1 points, 1.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers. McDermott praised Alexander, who started against the Red Storm alongside Nembhard and had 16 points, six assists and four turnovers.

“He had four turnovers at halftime, and I know he was really disappointed with the way he played in the first half,” McDermott said. “And he (had) no turnovers in the second half when he had to play the whole time and be the primary ballhandler.”

Creighton freshman Arthur Kaluma (9.4 points) returned against St. John’s after missing four games due to a knee injury and scored 12 points in 19 minutes off the bench.

–Field Level Media