What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And a visit to Rupp Arena to take on number-one ranked Kentucky certainly didn’t kill Providence. So that bodes well for the future.

Providence visited storied Rupp Arena on Sunday to take on the latest version of college basketball’s greatest team ever, unbeaten and #1 ranked Kentucky on their home turf. Now, on the surface, this might have looked like a hopeless mission. After all, as media pundits everywhere are telling us, ad nauseum, the Wildcats have so much talent that Coach John Calipari has… gasp… broken their squad into two units.

That’s right. In what some regard as a revolutionary move, the Cats trot out a starting team of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Karl Anthony-Towns, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and then follow that up, ten minutes into the half, with a second unit of Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. So, that’s nine McDonald’s All-Americans and ten future NBA Hall of Famers. A tall task, literally, for any opponent.

Except Providence gave them a game. Ed Cooley and staff concocted a game plan that saw the Friars slow the pace, burn clock and protect the rim with Carson Desrosiers doing yeoman work inside. PC did everything but hit shots. In fact, after allowing a quick 6-0 Wildcats lead, the Friars answered by taking a 12-8 lead and held a 19-15 advantage with under 5 minutes to play in the first half. Kentucky had trailed for all of five minutes all year; Providence had led for over 10 minutes.

Many observers seem to consider the next two minutes as the turning point in the game, the moments where super-pest Ulis made an impact defensively by hounding Kris Dunn and Kyron Cartwright. Indeed, Ulis forced a five-second call on Dunn and stripped Cartwright, leading Kentucky to a 24-20 lead. But the game was far from over at this point. Two Dunn free throws pulled PC to within 26-22 at the half and it was still anybody’s game.

No, the true turning point of the game came in the second half. With just over 12 minutes to play, and PC still within 33-27, Tyler Harris stepped to the free throw line for two freebies. Over the first seven-plus minutes of the half, PC was clearly struggling to score, clearly bothered by Kentucky’s length. Dunn had missed a layup, Ben Bentil had missed two layups and LaDontae Henton couldn’t find a shot. But Kentucky was also still missing and that’s why it was still a 6-point game and every point would be crucial.
And with 12:16 to play, Harris missed both free throws. And then the floodgates opened.

Cauley-Stein and Kentucky started hitting shots and Providence kept missing. Against a team as talented as the Cats, a 6-point deficit can quickly get away if shots aren’t falling. Another Bentil layup miss, a couple of turnovers and by the 8-minute media timeout, Kentucky was up 15 and the Friars weren’t coming back. The final 58-38 score represented Kentucky’s biggest margin and the other numbers were equally ugly.

Providence’s 11 field goals for the game set a modern-era school record and their 4 field goals in the second half tied the mark. The 38 points scored were the lowest since a 1984 loss to Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas. Coming back from an ankle injury that had sidelined him for Yale, Kris Dunn had a stat line to forget – 1-7 shooting and 3 assists to go along with 10 turnovers in 29 minutes. LaDontae Henton shot just 1-8 after a career-high 38 points against Notre Dame and 29 against Yale.

Bright spots were few and far between. Harris, despite missing those crucial free throws, battled inside and scored 10 points on 3-6 shooting, and Paschal Chukwu, in 10 minutes, scored 7 points and flashed a future ability to play in these types of games that excited the Friar Faithful. Meanwhile, Desrosiers scored 10 and played stout defense, not backing down one bit from the waves of Kentucky big men.

So, overall, the Friars acquitted themselves well. And they learned. One thing they learned is that they will face no one this season quite like Kentucky. The Wildcat’s length and height is insane. The ability to send in waves of fresh, NBA-ready talent also clearly wore the Friars down. Once the layup line started in the last ten minutes of the game, there wasn’t much resistance left in PC’s tank. The Friars had the ability to forestall the inevitable for 30 minutes, but not for the full 40 – not without rewarding that resistance with some made baskets.

The loss did not hurt PC perception-wise. The Friars fell out of the ESPN Top 25, but only to #27. Those who saw the game on national TV were impressed by Providence’s ability to stay close to Kentucky for so long. The important thing is to avoid a hangover (after last year’s Kentucky game, Kadeem Batts played as though he had seen a ghost for the next couple of games) and not lose momentum. After four days of recovery and practice, Providence travels to the Conte Forum on Friday to take on their third ACC foe of the season, Boston College. PC’s remaining out of conference games are all crucial towards building an NCAA resume, and a win over the Eagles would be an important next step.

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