The killer, of course, is that the game was there to be won. Not that Villanova wasn’t the better team. Not that the 4th-ranked Wildcats didn’t make key plays and shots down the stretch. Or that the Friars didn’t have to dig their way out of yet another seemingly insurmountable hole. And yet, as the seconds ticked down, the game was right there for the taking, tantalizingly close but ultimately out of reach.
For the standing room only crowd of 12,463 who seemed to all stayed until the bitter end, there was a sense of regret about just how close Providence had come to pulling off the monumental, resume-defining upset. Too many missed box-outs on rebounds, missed free throws, shots that were in and then out, weak turnovers and defensive mistakes doomed PC’s effort. As Ed Cooley has said, “You have to play a near perfect game to be beat Villanova.” And the Friars were far from perfect.
Providence was always behind but at least managed to keep the first half close, trailing 32-29 at the break. An early second half rush by the Cats, sparked by the outstanding play of Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Eric Paschall, swathe visitor’s advantage grow to 45-35, and for most of the stanza, Nova held double digit leads as PC struggled to stay within hailing distance.
Villanova widened their lead as Mikal Bridges scored on a slam, stole the ball from Maliek White and roared in for a layup for a 55-42 edge, and Nova led 57-44 with 8:33 to play after a Brunson driving layup and the Cats looked ready to blow the game open. At that point, the visitor’s normally dependable offense ground to a halt but Providence struggled to take advantage. After a Kyron Cartwright layup, the two teams went more than two minutes without scoring, as Nova missed on four straight jumpers, a ripe opportunity that PC was unable to capitalize on.
Pascahll broke the drought with an emphatic dunk, but Nova went cold again. This time, the Friars began to whittle away at the lead and two Alpha Diallo free throws, a Cartwright driving layup and a Diallo three-pointer with 2:10 to go trimmed the lead to 59-57. With the crowd roaring and the game hanging in the balance, it was the Friars who blinked.
Kris Jenkins missed a three but Bridges soared for the offensive rebound and after a Diallo foul, Brunson calmly drained two free throws. With 1:14 to play, Rodney Bullock missed a jumper but Diallo grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Hart. With a chance to cut the lead back to two, Diallo missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Brunson’s walk gave PC another chance.
Running an iso play for Bullock, as Rodney put the ball on the floor, Brunson moved from the backside, stripped the ball and raced down court for a layup, fouled by a trailing Cartwright. With just :39 left, Brunson buried the free throw and Nova was up, 64-57. Cartwright missed a long jumper and two more Brunson free throws closed the scoring. After narrowing the lead to two, Providence failed to score a point in the final 2:10 of the game.
The game’s bright point was clearly the play of freshman Alpha Diallo. The young swingman was the Friars’ only double figure scorer, with 18 points on 5-9 shooting, and is quickly finding his game. He received little help from PC’s veterans. Jalen Lindsey had a quiet game, with 6 points on 2-8 shooting and one three. Cartwright scored 8 points but didn’t shoot well, had 4 turnovers and struggled to assert himself against Nova’s superb backcourt. And Bullock, in foul trouble, was a shell of himself, with 6 points on 3-11 shooting. Included were several baffling misses and lack of strength with the ball, culminating in the final minute strip-steal turnover. Emmitt Holt turned his ankle early in the second half and went to the bench for a protracted period of time. Although he returned and recorded 7 points and 7 boards, his movement was clearly hampered.
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The Friars, who dropped to 14-10 on the season and 4-7 in the Big East, face a tough road ahead in their bid for a postseason tournament appearance. PC has a week off and will return to action with a trip to New Jersey to face Seton Hall, for an 8:30 p.m. tip on Wednesday, February 8.