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Kris Dunn was battered and bloodied. Definitely bloodied. Play was stopped in the first half as Dunn had a bloody lip tended to, and Illinois made is a point to take away what Dunn wanted to do. They clogged the middle lanes, double-teamed pick and rolls, rushed three defenders at times and tried to force Dunn to give up the ball.
If the Friars were going to win, John Groce was determined to make other players beat his team. And other players did step up. Junior Lomomba and Kyron Cartwright banged home early threes and Ben Bentil was a force throughout. At halftime, the Friars led, 32-30, and Dunn had just one point, 3 assists and no steals, playing only 11 minutes because of two fouls. The shots he did take looked forced against a defense that was clearly keying on him. But all of the Friars were misfiring.
PC fired 14 three-pointers, 4 by Bentil, and connected on 4 and shot 33 percent overall. What kept PC in the lead was a surprising rebounding effort against a much bigger team (Illinois played three players who were 6’10 or taller) and sloppy ballhandling by the Illini. Without three injured backcourt players, including both starting guards, Illinois committed 9 turnovers and while neither team was shooting particularly well, or getting to the free throw line, Providence was making enough plays to stay ahead.
A three pointer by Bentil and a layup by Ryan Fazekas pushed PC to a 37-30 lead and Groce quickly burned a timeout, not wanting the game to get away. It turned out to be a good move because Michael Finke drained a turn-around three pointer, followed that with a layup and from there, the game turned into a back-and-forth affair. Both teams struggling to score, both teams playing tough, gritty defense and every time PC would make a shot, Illinois answered.
A Malcolm Hill lane jumper gave Illinois their first lead, at 48-47 with 9 minutes to play, but Dunn finally connected on a three to put the Friars back on top. PC took a 54-51 lead on a Rodney Bullock under the basket layup, but Jalen Coleman-Lands nailed a three and after a Bullock turnover, Coleman-Lands banged home another three for a 57-54 Illini lead with 6:06 remaining.
At that point, Ed Cooley knew he had to change things up. Illinois, which had struggled with PC’s zone in the first half, was now getting comfortable and was hitting shots. So Cooley switched out into a man-to-man and over the final 6 minutes, Illinois scored just one basket. Which was fortunate, since over that same period, PC scored just 6 points of their own and repeatedly missed free throws that could have sealed the game.
In man-to-man, Dunn asserted himself defensively and snuck through for a layup that knotted the score and his two free throws put PC up, 59-57, with 2:07 left. Illinois answered with their only basket of the final six minutes on a Hill jumper with 1:18 to go after Coleman-Lands rebounded an Alex Austin three point miss. Cartwright missed a three but Maverick Morgan fouled Bullock in the rebounding scrum and Bullock hit just one of two free throws for a 60-59 lead with 43 seconds left.
On Illinois’ next possession, Austin drove to the basket but Dunn came up with the play of the game, blocking his layup attempt and the ball squirted out to Cartwright, who was fouled by Hill. Cartwright proceeded to miss both free throws, giving the Illini the ball with a chance to win with 16 seconds left.
In the final 7 seconds, Illinois had three shots to win the game. First, Hill drove to the basket and missed a layup from the right side. Finke then grabbed the rebound and somehow missed a dunk putback attempt. Bullock batted the ball out beyond the perimeter where Hill snared it and put up a three pointer that hit the rim and bounced away as the buzzer sounded. The sequence was stunning and left Friar players and coaches in disbelief. PC had survived in a game where they hadn’t played well at all.
Rebounding, which was supposed to be a major concern in this contest, was dead even, both teams with 39. Bentil was a force inside with 18 points and 12 boards and despite too many three point attempts, more than held his own against the Illini frontline. Dunn ended with 10 points, on 3-8 shooting, and just 3 assists, but his subpar offensive performance was more than offset by the lack of production by Mike Thorne of Illinois. Thorne came in averaging a double-double, but the 6-11 center got into constant foul trouble and ended with zero points and 2 rebounds in 13 ineffective minutes before fouling out.
Jalen Lindsey played stout defense in man-to-man and Drew Edwards provided an energetic defensive spark also. Bullock had 13 points on 6-12 shooting and flashed a pretty fade-away jumper. Even Quadree Smith got into the action, burying an off-handed pop shot over Thorne in the first half. The win bodes well for a PC team that didn’t play all that well, but good teams find a way to win when they’re not at their best.
Up next is a visit from the Brown Bears on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Dunk.