Friars answer bell, rout Rhody Rams

How do you kickstart a moribund basketball team? Providence College discovered the recipe on Wednesday night, in a 68-60 win over the University of Rhode Island.

It was no secret that Providence did not look like the same team that had started off the season with a 6-0 record that included impressive wins over Florida State, Notre Dame and Yale and a spot in the coach’s Top 25. A trip to Rupp Arena and a respectable loss to Kentucky notwithstanding, PC seemed to have emerged from bourbon country with a severe case of Kentucky hangover.

In the morgue that masquerades as Conte Forum, the Friars looked zombie-like in a 69-60 loss to a Boston College team that should threaten for the lower rungs of the ACC. Then, more shockingly, on Monday night the Friars were shocked by cross-town rival Brown, 77-67, in another morgue-like environment at the Dunk, snapping a 39-game out of conference home win streak.

So what changed for Providence between Monday night and Wednesday night?

Well, for one thing, a packed house at the Dunk brought energy and a sense of urgency to the proceedings. After playing to empty houses in the previous two losses, the Friars were finally able to feed off the crowd and the intensity of the moment. With 12,246 fans and a packed student section ready to rock and roll, the team couldn’t help but be pumped.

That the opponent was the University of Rhode Island in the annual rivalry game only added to the buzz. Since Ed Cooley became coach at PC, he has been very successful at instilling the importance of this game to his teams. Prior to Cooley’s arrival, it was a given that URI would be the more intense, more motivated team and the question was always, can PC match their intensity? Not anymore. Growing up in Rhode Island and coaching at URI has given Cooley a unique understanding of the meaning of this game and his 4-0 mark against the Rams is a testament to his ability to get that message across to his players.

So, the crowd and the opponent certainly played big factors in PC’s reversal of performance. Both teams needed this win, but the Friars really needed it. That understanding was evident from the opening tip, as PC treated each possession with much more care than they had in the prior two games. In fact, URI would lead in this game for a grand total of 76 seconds.

It should also be noted that Ed Cooley shortened his rotation in this game, going with 8 players and limiting his substitutions. Junior Lomomba and Ted Bancroft saw no action, while Ben Bentil played just 7 minutes. Cooley also recognized that zone was the way to go against a team that featured just one outstanding shooter in E.C. Matthews (27 points).

As in every game, there was good and bad, but fortunately for the Friars, there was much more good than bad in this one. “I think all of you are missing the point here,” said Cooley at his press conference. “This guy was the difference in this game,” pointing at Paschal Chukwu. The 7’2 freshman had, indeed, altered the landscape of the game, scoring 9 points in 10 minutes; playing tough defense inside; diving to the floor for a loose ball; converting pass after pass for vicious slams. Catching the ball in the low post translated into automatic points as URI had no one who even bothered challenging the shots.

Tyler Harris came up big for Providence in spots. His dunk in the second half sparked a Friar run, he nailed a big three and his free throws had arc. Players with shaken confidence can take time to reemerge, but Harris showed grit, especially in the second half as Providence spurted to a 12 point lead with seven minutes left. He finished with 17 points in a team-high 38 minutes. Meanwhile, his upperclass running mate, LaDontae Henton, also showed signs of regaining his touch. Henton still missed some easy shots but converted on some tough, contested inside attempts and didn’t force as many shots as he had against BC and Brown. The one negative: only 2 rebounds and Henton’s rebounding production has been down all season as he plays further from the basket in an attempt to create offense.

Kris Dunn faced enormous pressure from Rhody’s guards and delivered an outstanding performance with 22 points on 7-10 shooting, 9 rebounds, 4 steals and typical defense. Dunn really controlled the game’s tempo and while he wasn’t his usual self in distributing the ball (2 assists), both Biggie Minnis and T.J. Buchanan found themselves in foul trouble trying to guard him. Dunn himself was in foul trouble and sat for a long period with four late in the second half. When he exited with his fourth foul at the 8:31 mark, PC led 53-42. When he returned with 3:05 to play, PC was up 58-50, but momentum had started to turn.

In his place, Kyron Cartwright did an excellent job running the offense and alongside Dunn, both felt the heat when Rhody turned up the pressure in the final three minutes. The Rams’ pressure exposed PC’s need for more guards and ballhandlers but that’s a problem not likely addressed this season, although it’s possible that Tyree Chambers could help. Although the gap closed to 63-60 after a Jared Terrell three, the Friars nailed down the well-deserved win with two free throws by Dunn, a rebound off a Jarvis Garrett three ball miss by Dunn and another free throw, and a steal and dunk by Dunn – all within the final forty seconds.

In the 125th meeting between the schools, PC notched its fifth straight win and moved out to a 71-54 lead in the all-time series. Now, the focus is on Stony Brook at noon on Saturday at the Dunk in what is likely to be a sleepy environment. The Friars will have to show that they can create their own intensity and build on this important win.

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