That 5-2 league record is also good for a tie for third place in the standings, behind only Villanova and Creighton. And the win improved Providence's RPI to 42, well within range of the NCAA Tournament. With Nova and the Blue Jays seen as locks for the tournament, and Xavier as probable, PC is building a case for itself as the league's fourth bid.
What's lacking right now? Road wins. And PC gets a chance to rectify that weakness, starting right now. With the schedule front-loaded with home games, the Friars now face four of their next five games on the road. League road wins are very, very difficult, but PC has a legitimate chance to start stocking their cupboard with away wins right out of the gate. At Marquette on Thursday is the first test and even though the Friars have never won in Marquette's building, this is a down year for Marquette, currently at 11-9 overall and 3-4 in league play. After that, PC will play at DePaul, who are better than their record at 10-11 overall and 2-6 in league play, but still a very winnable game for Providence.
Providence completed its home sweep of the league's three newcomers with a hard fought victory over a very physical Xavier team. In so doing, PC did what it had to do: protect the home court. On a day when past PC legends Joe Hassett, Kevin Stacom and Tracy Lis were honored, the Friars pulled off an important resume-building win in front of 11,112 delighted fans.
Offensively, the Friars shot just 29% in the first half, yet led 35-31 at the break. Great free throw shooting (11-12) and tough rebounding, led by LaDontae Henton, keyed the Friars' first half efforts. And although forward Justin Martin (13 points) hurt PC, extra attention to talented sophomore Semaj Christon helped to control the Musketeers. Christon was 0-5 at halftime and was content not to force things.
In the second half, the Friars heated up, shooting 64%. "We had great shots in the first half," said Ed Cooley. "They just didn't go in. In the second half, we had the exact same shots, but they started to fall." When PC nailed seven of its first 10 attempts in the second half, the Friars jumped out to a 53-41 lead with thirteen minutes to play. Any thoughts of the final thirteen minutes being garbage time vanished almost immediately as Xavier fought back.
Xavier closed the gap to 58-54 before a Henton dunk in traffic snapped their run. A deep Josh Fortune three pushed the lead to 69-59 before Christon decided to wake up and attempt to take over. Utilizing a great dribble-drive into the lane to the rim, Christon scored 12 straight points, on layups or free throws to bring Xavier within four, at 76-72, with a minute and a half remaining. In so doing, Tyler Harris, Carson Desrosiers and Henton all picked up their fourth fouls during the course of the last five minutes of the game, with Henton eventually fouling out.
Free throws by Bryce Cotton and Harris provided the final margin as Desrosiers blocked Christon twice in the final minute and the Musketeers didn't score again.
Free throws were almost PC's undoing. Entering the game leading the nation at .799, PC shot well in the first half, but the Friars missed 8 free throws in the second half, leaving the door open for a Xavier comeback. Henton missed an uncharacteristic three, Fortune missed all three of his attempts and Cotton missed two. Certainly, fatigue is playing a part in PC's free throw shooting. During the past several games, PC's iron men have exhibited fatigue at about the eight minutes to go mark, allowing opponents to pull back into the game, before a second wind has enabled them to put games away over the final two minutes or so.
Cotton once again played all 40 minutes, recording 25 points on 8-19 shooting and handing out 7 assists against zero turnovers. He was supported by an aggressive Henton, who chipped in 23 points, several on impressive take it to the teeth of the defense moves and 11 boards, Kadeem Batts, who battled massive Matt Stainbrook and scored 12 points and 8 boards and Harris, with 12 points, 7-8 free throws and 6 rebounds. Desrosiers had just one basket, but pulled down 7 rebounds and was a fierce rim protector with 6 blocks.
Like many, Xavier's Chris Mack sometimes has difficulty coming to grips with losing to the Friars. Mack was complimentary of Henton, mentioning, "I've known Buckets since high school. Thankfully, at the time, he ended up at Providence and not Dayton. Now I wish he was at Dayton." But overall, Mack was very critical of his won team, as opposed to giving PC credit. "They ace very talented players but it doesn't matter right now if we play Providence or a local YMCA team. I thought our defense was terrible. It was pathetic."
Fact is, PC's flex offense is giving everyone fits right now. As Friar after Friar cut through the lane and passed crisply to create open shots, Mack could be heard screaming "Flex!" repeatedly. But his defense was powerless to stop it.
Make no mistake. This was a quality win by a team playing very well right now. Xavier has an all-league player in Christon, a load inside in Stainbrook, two young 6'9 studs in James Farr and Jalen Reynolds and a good shooter in Myles Davis. They will be heard from down the road. But this was PC's day and the future is now in PC's hands.
Friars Sweep Past Xavier
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