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You have to hand it to the Friars. Playing top-seeded North Carolina at Raleigh in front of 19,000 blue-clad Tar Heel fans, Providence hung in with the blue-bloods and made it a game, frustrating Carolina at times defensively. In the end, though, Carolina’s talent, depth and skill level was just too much to handle, especially once PC fell into foul trouble.
For most of the first half, Providence went toe-to-toe with the 30-6 Heels. Led by an energized Kris Dunn, PC fell behind 21-14 but took the lead at 22-21 on Ben Bentil free throws and 25-23 on a Bentil three-pointer. A Kyron Cartwright three point play made it 28-25 with 5:50 left but PC’s shooting went cold and Carolina forged a 34-30 halftime lead as PC’s only other points of the final six minutes were Rodney Bullock free throws with 6 seconds left.
PC scored the first 6 points of the second half, the last on a Dunn steal off Marcus Paige and a dunk for a 36-34 advantage, but Carolina answered with a 7-0 run and fouls were becoming a concern. When Dunn dunked again to knot the score at 41-all, that would be PC’s last sniff of the lead. Dunn’s third foul sent him to the bench and the Heels ripped off another 9-0 run, capped by a Brice Johnson dunk and three point play.
PC pulled within 57-50 on a Jalen Lindsey bucket but Bentil picked up two quick fouls and fouled out in the midst of another Carolina run with 7:23 to go and the Friars down, 63-50. The lead would peak at 17 points before Dunn free throws snapped the latest run but PC was powerless in the paint without Big Ben and Carolina quickly pushed the lead to 20 and sealed the win.
“We fronted the post,” said Bentil. “They just made good plays. At the end of the day, the refs made good calls. We respect it. The size, it was a problem but it wasn't a problem for us. It was the toughness. They played better today. That's it.”
Carolina’s advantage was up front. The Heels were able to send waves of tall, long and athletic players at Bentil and foul trouble seemed an inevitability. Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks all presented matchup problems for the shorter, thinner Friars. “We were one center short of being a special team,” said Ed Cooley.
Dunn, who scored 29 points in 26 minutes, also was limited by foul trouble for the second straight game. “Yeah, we got in foul trouble,” said Dunn. “I think they took advantage of that. They made a couple of runs. In the first half I thought we withstood it. Once I got in foul trouble, the guys they kept fighting. They kept being resilient. Everybody was making plays. Once Ben had foul trouble, they took another run. We tried to withstand it but they overmatched us. I'm very aggressive on both ends of the floor. Coaching staff told me, always stay who you are and be aggressive. I definitely got a cheap foul. I think we doubled the post and they threw it to Joel James (sic). I should have let him get the easy basket, but my aggressive play got me the cheap foul and I had to sit out.”
Along with the problems that Carolina presented, some old bugaboos raised their ugly heads again and contributed to sinking the game Friars. Shooting has been a problem all season and the numbers don’t lie: Providence was just not a good shooting team. Against North Carolina, PC had plenty of wide open looks, from three point attempts to short and midrange jumpers and the ball wouldn’t go down. PC shot 40 percent overall and 6-23 from three, and against a talented team like the Heels, long droughts were fatal.
Carolina outrebounded PC, 42-24 and scored over 40 points in the paint. The Friars had no answers inside for the Tar Heels. Second chance opportunities were rare, and PC’s defense struggled to keep Carolina out of the paint.
Finally, despite the shooting woes and lack of depth in the frontcourt, what ultimately sunk Providence in the end was the lack of a consistent third option. In truth, PC was a two-man team – Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil – and while they were both All-American in caliber, the Friars needed a true third guy to emerge and one never did. Certainly, in spots, Jalen Lindsey, Rodney Bullock and even Kyron Cartwright had big games at times during the course of the season, but none could bring production on a game-in, game-out basis. They would step up and shine for a game or two, and then step back into the shadows. Against Carolina, starters not named Dunn or Bentil combined to shoot 1-12 and only Cartwright, with 7 points on 3-8 shooting, contributed off the bench.
And so another season closes on Providence College basketball and the staff moves on to filling gaps and bringing new talent to Friartown.