Nova Nips Friars

There really are no moral victories in college hoops, but this 63-61 loss comes awfully close. While their Big East Tournament Semi-Final ended painfully for Providence in the aftermath of a very questionable foul vs. AP #4 ranked Villanova, it was nonetheless a thrilling game.

These are the types of high stakes Big East Tournament battles that Providence fans have jealously craved to be in engaged in for years, and Ed Cooley has delivered them to the Friar fan base with a Big East Championship last year and now a memorable semi-final vs. Villanova. Providence could not match Villanova’s high-octane offense, so they slowed the pace of the play, and overplayed the perimeter with an active zone defense, forcing Daniel Ochefu to execute on the block or to make a jump shot, the latter of which is his weakness.

It worked wonderfully. Powerhouse Villanova was held to 42% percent shooting, but more importantly, only 7 made three point baskets and 63 points. Providence actually matched Villanova in made 3’s with the help of freshman Jalen Lindsey, who made 3 big ones that played a huge part in Providence’s game tying run that ultimately tied the score at 61 after a turnover and a Kris Dunn basket.

While Providence started game with a LaDontae Henton three, the Friar senior was mostly bottled up the rest of the game. (9 pts, 5 rebs) That allowed Villanova to maintain a working margin over the Friars for much of the game, including 7 straight by Darrun Hilliard that helped built the Wildcat advantage. However, Josh Hart was the best player for Villanova in this one, scoring 18 points on 7-10 shooting from the field, including three 3-point shots. Providence only trailed by 5 at the half, but battled all second half to get even, only doing so with 16 seconds left on the clock.

While the questionable foul call on a drive to the basket with seconds left that sent Ryan Arcidiacano to the line helped provide the winning margin for the Wildcats, Ed Cooley pointed out that the Friars missed free throws down the stretch proved very costly. He also handled a question about “the call” with class when he stated that the Big East has the best officials in the nation. While that may have been generous at best given the circumstances, it was a classy response without question. When asked what’s the biggest thing his team needs to work on moving forward in the NCAA Tournament, he responded:

“Make some free throws down the stretch. I thought we missed some critical free throws down the stretch. And complete the defensives possession. I thought there were two 50-50 balls late in the game that we weren’t able to come up with.”

The MVP of the entire game was Kris Dunn (22 points, nine assists and seven rebounds), who thoroughly outplayed Co-Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacano. Dunn continually found ways to score and set up his teammates, despite constant harassment by an athletic Villanova defense that rotated in eight players; none of whom had to play in excess of 31 minutes each. That’s a huge luxury in big games.

Providence played with tremendous defensive effort against one of the best offenses in the nation, and also outrebound Villanova by 12, something that kept the Friars within striking distance and may potentially prove to be the Wildcats Achilles heel in the NCAA Tournament. Jay Wright clearly felt his team dodged a huge bullet on Friday night:

“I give Providence a ton of credit. Their zone was awesome. We just really struggled with it. Our defense kept us in it, but we couldn’t rebound against them. That’s what kept them in the game… I’d rather not have this (type) of game, but when you do, you’re really glad you have one. It’s great to go through that. It was one of those nights, but you’ve got to find a way to win those nights.”

So what’s next for the Friars? Providence’s fate will be revealed on Selection Sunday, but it shouldn’t be a stressful one. The Friars will be dancing for the second year in a row, and Providence certainly enhanced their post-season resume in New York this week, pummeling an athletic St. John’s team and coming within seconds of knocking off #1 seed Villanova. The thought here is that the Friars will be a 6 seed in the Big Dance, but the Selection Committee can pull some surprises, and nothing is assured when it comes to seeding. For now, Ed Cooley can feel gratified with the effort his team gave him in New York, particularly on defense and with the contributions of freshman like Ben Bentil and Jalen Lindsey, who have shown some growth for a team that needs more players to step up and contribute on both sides of the ball. The ride will continue Friar fans, enjoy it while it lasts.

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