NEW YORK -- This one was for the old Big East.
In the conference's first year of rejiggering, it was league newbie Creighton, with its Player of the Year frontrunner Doug McDermott, that was most feared. The Bluejays, boasting that beautiful, efficiently fueled offense. They were expected by many to fly into Manhattan and fly back to Omaha with the league tournament title.
But it was founding league member Providence that climbed a ladder, took home nets, hardware and the respect of a lot more people.
“I hate to lose in a game like this, but if I have to lose, losing to someone like Ed Cooley is as good as it can possibly be,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said.
This one was for Friars fans.
Providence College, which had only won one other Big East tournament over the past 34 years -- back in '94 -- and wasn't even considered a surefire NCAA Tournament team 24 hours ago. PC had been toiling in obscurity inside the behemoth Big East for the past decade. It was a program in mire.
No more. The 22-11 Friars won 65-58 at Madison Square Garden Saturday over 26-6 Creighton and emphatically played their way into an improved seed come Selection Sunday.
This was for Bryce Cotton.
The most unheralded do-it-all star in the country, a guy who played more than 40 minutes per game this season. He won the tourney's MOP award after scoring 23 points and lifting PC to a height it hadn't seen in 10 years: the NCAA Tournament. Afterward, he took a few phone calls while cradling the game ball and wearing the championship net over his neck and shoulders.
Bryce Cotton, net and game ball. All alone in the hallway. pic.twitter.com/PSaLKa4N2v— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 16, 2014
But for all the things that Providence's win signaled Saturday night, most of all, this one was for the hometown kid, the hometown coach.
“I'm gassed. I feel blessed -- blessed -- to represent Providence College,” Ed Cooley said.
Cooley, born and raised in Providence, wins a league tournament title, adding to what's been the most physically taxing and emotional year of his life. Cooley is still a man without a home to live in. A fire in his bedroom back in early January displaced his family, and for more than two months they've been living out of a hotel.
"I wish I could be back in my home," Cooley said in the Providence locker room.
God willing, he said he'll be moving back in within two weeks.
That's for the future, though. On Saturday night, Cooley allowed himself as best he could to reflect and celebrate. He said he was sad for Kris Dunn's inability to be part of this. Dunn is the five-star prospect Cooley got to Providence, the first legitimate indication that the program could return to prevoius eminence. He's out for the season with a shoulder injury, making this accomplishment by the Friars are the more incredible.
"We had a team that lost so much and gave even more," Cooley said.
He continued to reflect on what his life's become and how's it changed by being Providence's head coach. A lot of people know him, people who've known him for decades. Calling for tickets for every game. Too many to say yes to. Too many to pick up every phone call.
There's a lot of stress that comes with this job. But he's built for it. He learned that in the past 18 months, as things got better. Tougher, but better.
When asked why he decided to zone the most efficient offense and best 3-point shooting team in the country, Cooley replied, "Because I'm crazy."
The Friars held Creighton to 17 points at the half, its lowest total in 13 seasons. Doug McDermott wound up with a game-high 27, but a daring and brilliant call to zone the Bluejays put the team in a "panic" according to McDermott, something that prevented them from being able to build a big enough run in the second half.
“It was brave of us as a staff," said Cooley, "but you always have to have a man hand a half around him (McDermott), and he almost pulled it off.”
As he walked from the Madison Square Garden press room back to the Providence's locker room, Cooley held the stat sheet in his hand. He looked and smiled.
"Look at this!" he said. "I'm gonna frame it. Put it above my bed. It'll keep me excited."
He's a character, the kind college basketball seems to germinate.
On Saturday, Cooley had a nice little moment that signaled something big. Something that had nothing to do with basketball. You see, Cooley travels with a scale. Part that taxing past year? It's been his dedication to massive weight loss. So when he woke up Saturday morning, he stepped on it to see what his latest weight read.
Down from 347 pounds nearly nine months ago. One hundred and twenty-five pounds have vanished off what used to be college basketball's biggest man in the sport's smallest state.
So much has changed for him, for the program, for the Big East. All hardly recognizable from a year ago.
"I can't believe, this is the first time as a head coach I'm going to the NCAA Tournament," Cooley said.
It's taken “eight long years to get to that blue carpet" for him. It took a long walk to get there.
Now he can run -- with an entire state behind him.