The Sacred Heart Pioneers could claim the same malaise as Providence. They were coming off exams, wanted to get home for Christmas and had to deal with rust, just like the Friars. The difference was that, in Sacred Heart's case, the Pioneers had no trouble getting up for a Big East foe and an opportunity to hang a pelt on their trophy wall. PC, on the other hand, saw a lower level Division 1 opponent and had problems summoning the requisite energy.
That, plus a leaky game strategy, allowed Sacred Heart to hang around far too long. The Pioneers are a team that plays all guards and small forwards, likes to run, likes to turn you over, and can bomb away from the outside. Brown University, a squad that likes to play methodically and slow the game down, easily handled Sacred Heart, 61-47, just a few weeks ago.
Providence, on the other hand, chose to press for almost the entire game, a decision that led to numerous slashes down the lane to the basket for lay-ups and open three point looks. Even when the Friars pulled ahead and had multiple chances to put the hammer down on Sacred Heart, the press stayed on, allowing the small but tough opponent to climb back into the game.
"That was my fault," said coach Keno Davis. "Sacred Heart puts five guards out there. We played big in the first half, and our fours and fives are going to be good but they're young and they don't know how to take advantage of their size yet. In the second half, we went to four guards."
The Friars led by just 44-41 at the half as both teams played porous defense and stops were rare. Sophomore guard Shane Gibson torched PC for 16 points on 6-8 shooting, including 4-6 threes, but the Friars countered with an on-fire Marshon Brooks. The senior kept PC in the game with 19 points, on 7-9 shooting and three of his own three pointers. On top of that, PC committed just two fouls in the first half, and attempted 17 free throws to the Pioneers' zero. Of course, PC hit just ten of those.
The Friars led for most of the first half and built seven and eight point leads on several occasions, but each time allowed Gibson, Jerrell Thompson and Evan Kelley to race past them for lay-ups or open jumpers. The Pioneers shot 53% for the half, far above the norm this season for PC foes.
Providence maintained a lead for the entire second half, but it wasn't easy. Brooks cooled off, scoring just six second half points, two on late free throws, and Vincent Council scored 16 points for the game, but shot just 5-13 and was sloppy with the ball. In fact, Council had seven turnovers against 5 assists, an unheard-of assist to turnover ratio for him. Brooks chipped in with six turnovers of his own.
PC led 65-53 on a Duke Mondy lay-up, but the press and leaky defense wouldn't let Sacred Heart go away. A three by Gibson and lay-ups by Kelley and Chris Evans cut the lead to 73-70 with 4:36 to play and PC was reeling. A crucial three by Mondy put PC up by six, and Sacred Heart mounted it's last charge on lay-ups by Stan Dulaire and Kelley, trimming the lead to 77-74 with just over a minute left.
Gerard Coleman found Bilal Dixon open for a dunk, and, forced to foul, the Friars iced the game with free throws by Council and Brooks. In all, PC outshot the Pioneers 20-3 in made free throws, and committed just 7 fouls in the game. The taller Friars outrebounded Sacred Heart 37-29, as Marshon Brooks grabbed nine of his 12 rebounds in the second half.
Still, Sacred Heart had scored 38 points in the paint and had 14 fast break points. Neither team played solid defense and both teams allowed endless forays into the paint. And even though the press was supposed to tire Sacred Heart out, it was the Friars who looked tired at game's end. "All of our guys got tired," Davis mused. "We didn't get much running or execution work done during finals week."
The Friars will have a week to get back in the gym and clean up the details before a trip to the Carrier Dome and a date with Top 10 Syracuse, as Big East play begins. Clearly, though, PC has reason to be very happy with a final 11-2 non-conference record.
"Eleven wins in the non-conference is a big number," said Davis. "Eleven wins puts you in position to accomplish some of your goals."
Friars Slip By The Pioneers, 84-76
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