NEW YORK — Jalen Brunson’s first sign of emotion in this Big East tournament came, finally, in the closing minutes of its final game.
Villanova’s 6-foot-3 point guard found himself surrounded at the free throw line by Providence’s 6-7 Jalen Lindsey and 6-8 Rodney Bullock, fighting to hold on to possession with the Wildcats nursing a two-point lead and little more than two minutes left in regulation of the championship game Saturday night. He wrapped both arms around the ball in a vice grip and thrashed from left to right, trying to shake his defenders. In the process, his eyes tightened. A corner of his mouth lifted. There might have been a snarl.
It was just a flash. Brunson was back to himself — dead-eyed, expressionless — in the next instant. He remained that way as he hit two free throws with 30 seconds left to send the game to overtime, even as one corner of the packed crowd at Madison Square Garden showered him with boos and one spectator shouted: “Not today, Brunson! Not today!” Only when he charged down the court with 20 seconds left in overtime and slammed a one-handed dunk that put Villanova up by eight did he finally unleash a roar.
A smile followed moments later, when Donte DiVincenzo’s layup iced Villanova’s 76-66 overtime win over Providence to secure the Wildcats’ third Big East tournament championship in four years.
This year’s conference tournaments have brought players who delight, such as Alabama’s eccentric young point guard, Collin Sexton, and players who enrage, such as Duke’s controversy magnet, Grayson Allen. Brunson seems boring in comparison until a glance at Saturday’s box score reveals he had 31 points in a championship game so high energy that Providence Coach Ed Cooley split his pants.
Amid all the intensity, Brunson helped keep things levelheaded.
“It keeps our team — honestly, he’s the most mature person in the program, including me,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. “And a lot of times during games, he’s grabbing me and saying, ‘Attitude, Coach, attitude.’ [Xavier Coach] Chris Mack had the greatest line: He said, ‘If you pull down the skin on his face, there would be wires behind it.’ He’s like — he’s so focused on the game. He’s on another level. He really is. And it’s what makes him great. . . .
“All our players have great respect for him and confidence because of all throughout the game, because of the way he conducts himself. Every day. Every day in practice when I get on him and every game.”
In a game that will help pad his case for national player of the year, Brunson was an ice-cold assassin for Villanova (30-4).
The junior shot made 12 of 23 shots from the floor, including four three-pointers, to complement four assists and two turnovers. Mikal Bridges, who was named tournament MVP, added 25 points on 9-for-14 shooting, including four three-pointers of his own.
No other Villanova player scored in double figures, though Eric Paschall led all players with 13 rebounds. Brunson and Bridges carried the Wildcats though a wild game in which momentum swung drastically from the start, when No. 2 seed Villanova got off to a nine-point lead before No. 5 seed Providence (21-13) punched back to tie the score.
It continued on like that, back and forth, until Bridges hit a three-pointer with 3:37 left in overtime to give the Wildcats some space before the Friars ran out of gas. Brunson hit a jumper with 1:17 to play, and Providence didn’t score another point.
Sophomore Alpha Diallo led three scorers in double figures for the upset-minded Friars with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Kyron Cartwright added 19 points and six assists.
But Bridges and Brunson were the difference for Villanova.
Brunson has prepared for games like these. It’s not that he doesn’t feel the pressure of having to make two free throws in front of a crowd of 19,812 at the end of regulation; it’s that he works to make sure no one ever sees him sweat.
“I think my teammates know how I feel; I try to give as much energy as possible,” Brunson said. “I just don’t want the opponent to see me crumbling when things are tough; when things are going great, I don’t want them to see me too happy. I just want them to see that I’m coming at them every play, every play, every play — no matter what the situation is.
“It started back when I was a freshman. . . . Being in tough games in these environments, in these arenas, sometimes people can crumble. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but it’s about how you’re going to respond to that. I’ve just been fortunate to have been part of a team of great leaders who’ve responded well to different situations and helped me through this process.”
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