A Missed Opportunity

As is often the case, the Providence vs. Rhode Island game came down to the wire at the Ryan Center this past Saturday. Providence was up 67-63 with 5:08 to play and a young Friar team needed to find a way to claim a victory in the closing minutes.

What followed was combination of poor decision making on offense, bad positioning on defense which repeatedly sent Rhode Island to the foul line, and some gutsy play by Ram 5th year senior Dawan Robinson who proved to be the best player on the floor at the end of the game.

What is the anatomy of this Friar loss? After taking a four point lead with five minutes to go, the Friars offense ground to a halt with a missed 1-1 opportunity by Randall Hanke, an ill advised 3 point shot miss by DeSean White, and a foul and a turnover each both committed by Weyinmi Efejuku and Geoff McDermott.

By the two minute mark, the Rams had cashed in on Friar mistakes and the play making ability of Dawan Robinson allowed them to claim a 2 point lead. They would not relinquish it as Efejuku's foul was his fifth and the Friars lost their most creative play maker of the game for the final two minutes. They would not make a field goal the rest of the way. The Friars committed two more critical turnovers (McDermott, Hanke) and continued to put Rhode Island on the foul line on the defensive end. After a few more rushed jump shots, what was an extremely tight game two minutes before ended with a 77-69 Rhode Island victory. An opportunity missed.

Providence had a 39-34 lead at the beginning of the second half due in large part to the hot shooting of Donnie McGrath in the 1st half, (4-5 from the field) but that was quickly squandered in the opening minutes of the second half. The Friars began with a three guard lineup and paid a steep price for the gamble as Rhode Island took advantage in the paint and ended up with a three point lead at the 15:45 mark before Providence could sub in Hanke and Burch to help stop the bleeding.

The Friars managed to reignite their own offense and quickly got even, trading baskets with the Rams for an extended period due to some solid play by Geoff McDermott, Weyinmi Efejuku, and the scoring of Randall Hanke. Donnie McGrath and DeSean White struggled to get good shooting opportunities in the second half as the Rams keyed on them with the intention of forcing the Friar freshmen to beat them down the stretch. While the Ram strategy did not appear to shut down the Friar offense for most of the second half, it did pay dividends in the closing minutes.

Were the Friars decisively out rebounded? Yes, (42-33) but amazingly, the points in the paint between the two teams were even at 30-30. Of course, the difference in second chance points was significant with an 18-10 advantage for the Rams. The Friars didn't make their opponents pay for shooting poorly in the first half and should have had a much greater bigger lead than five at halftime.

Free throw shooting? The key here is that the Friars committed too many crunch time fouls, giving URI chances to score at the line. The Rams made three more free throws and shot a better percentage mainly due to Dawan Robinson (9-12) down the stretch. Providence made only 20-30 free throws for 66.7% ,which has been a problem in every game and simply isn't good enough to win close games. PC also missed some key 1-1 opportunities that could have made the difference in the game. As for turnovers, the Friars committed 15 which wasn't too bad considering the pressing and changing defenses that Rhode Island employed throughout the game. The problem again was that Providence committed four of the fifteen turnovers in the crucial last five minutes. (3 by PC freshmen)

Providence has only one senior in Donnie McGrath who can put up points and offer veteran leadership on the court, but he has not yet demonstrated the ability to be a go to player who can carry the team down the stretch. Dawan Robinson was the best player on the court in the closing minutes of Saturday's game, and while one or more of the Providence freshmen and sophomores may get to that level, none have yet reached it and it is costing the team victories for the time being.

The Friars also need to stop making opponents mediocre big men look like Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes. The Friars do block shots, but have failed to consistently put a physical body on opposing team's frontcourt players. Do the Friar players who are getting to the line need to make more of their free throws? Without question. Are turnovers, many of which are unforced and particularly at the end of halves, killing this team's chances to win games? It would seem so.

For the coaching staff, what can they do rectify these problems? This is a team that, despite its flaws can generally put points on the board both inside and outside. This year's edition of the Friars, unlike last year's, can score fast break and transition baskets when they rebound the ball. This year's Friars also show more ability to scramble for loose balls and bounce back from adversity.

However, until the coaching staff can get the team to eliminate critical mistakes and exact some improved execution from the young players down the stretch of close games, the ills of the team will continue to be laid at the feet of Tim Welsh. For better or worse, losses down the stretch of games are ultimately blamed on the coaching staff because decision-making and situational play gets magnified under the microscope. These are things that are worked on in practice throughout the season and it's up to the coaches to find a way to help the players succeed at crunch time. Freshmen are freshmen and obviously do make a lot of mistakes, but they need to mature awfully fast with the minutes they are now playing on the court.

The head coach and staff must get the team to improve the interior defense and eliminate the self defeating errors that are costing the Friars wins right now. There is a lot of season yet to play, and there is plenty of time for this Friar team to improve and still succeed. The talent and potential is there to turn the corner, and the question is when will the team make that turn and how many opportunities to win will pass before that happens?

For Friar fans, some patience is needed despite having to endure some painful losses with this young group. The hope is for an expedited return to the optimistic days that have been so elusive since the good times of the 2004 regular season.

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