The 61-60 win over DePaul wasn't entirely unexpected, and yet, a feeling of positive anticipation and expectation is beginning to set in with this team. Where shots would not fall just a few short weeks ago, they're now falling. Where big plays wouldn't, or couldn't be made, the expectation is that they will be made. If a player is struggling with his game, there is now the feeling that someone will pick them up to replace his output.
Isn't this how a team is supposed to be?
Going into this second match-up of the season with the Blue Demons, Coach Tim Welsh feared that defense, or a lack thereof, would be the key to getting a win. In the first game at the Dunkin Donuts Center on January 21, DePaul junior Sammy Mejia torched the Friar zone defense for 30 points, and almost single-handedly took his team to a road win, before falling 76-75. This time around, DePaul was coming off of one of their better games of the season in an 80-66 1st-ever Big East road win at South Florida. Through studying the game tapes, it was clear that the Blue Demons were in an offensive groove, getting strong play from not only Mejia, but 6-9 freshman forward Wilson Chandler – who sat out the first game with the Friars due to a team-mandated suspension.
"We're going to have to figure out a way to outscore them," Welsh said during the pre-game radio coverage. "They're going to be difficult to stop. It'll take a great effort."
Wow. That's just what the Friars got, particularly in the second half.
The first half featured several thrusts and parries by both sides on offense, with little outward defensive pressure applied. Mejia led the way for DePaul with 13 first half points, and Friar junior Herbert Hill came off of the bench to find a soft spot in the beefy DePaul backline – providing a game high 14 points in the first period. McGrath chipped in nine first half points, and the Friars kept up with the Blue Demons until the last minute of the half, as a turnover led to a finishing 3-point play. DePaul took a 40-37 lead into the locker room at the Allstate Arena.
Knowing that his team has struggled to start the second half in most games this season, Welsh came out of the locker room a little more animated than usual prior to the second half tip-off. While it wasn't a great beginning, it was better than it has been. DePaul was able to stretch their lead to seven points on several occasions, but were never able to expand upon it. The key was the Friar 2-3 zone defense, which provided more of a match-up look on the perimeter in the second half, moving one of the back forwards up into a wing position, giving it more of a 3-2 look. This caused DePaul to use much of the shot clock on their offensive possessions, feverishly working the ball around the perimeter, often taking the clock to less than :10 seconds left before finding a gap in the defense to get a shot.
In effect, it slowed the game down to a manageable pace for the Friars, and gave them a chance to win. It also pulled the reins in on Mejia and Karron Clarke, who had combined for 24 of the 40 first half points. The two combined for a mere four points in the second half, all from Mejia. Ultimately, the Friar defense allowed just 20 second half points in the final 20 minutes of play.
In turn, the Friars responded on the offensive end, as senior guard Donnie McGrath turned in one of his better all-around performances. McGrath scored 17 points, played the entire 40 minutes, and yet he was largely responsible for gassing the Blue Demons in the end. Mejia had the defensive assignment to guard McGrath, and McGrath's patience and ball movement on the offensive end kept Mejia on the move. There was little left in the DePaul junior's tank in the end, which showed at the free throw line – he missed a crucial one-and-one in the game's final minute.
McGrath hit two big three-point plays – one of them the traditional "and one" way – to keep the Friars close throughout the half. Providence never had the lead in the second half, until the final score of 61-60 was reached with 10.7 seconds remaining, on a Sharaud Curry floater from 10 feet out in the lane. It was the same shot Curry had missed in a heartbreaking loss to Seton Hall.
This time, he was right on target. Perhaps even more amazing, however, was that the Friars had two point-blank attempts at the basket in the final half-minute, yet missed both shots (Hill and Geoff McDermott). Offensive rebounds – big ones, in key moments – paid off, to give Curry the chance to become the hero. Persistence, combined with some newly-found confidence, is beginning to become this teams' trademark.
Hill led the way with his 2nd double-double of the season, and third of his career, as he scored a game-high 20 points (two off of his career high) and pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds (one short of his career mark). Over the last six games, Hill is putting up solid numbers – 14.4 points, 5.6 rebounds per game.
McGrath's 17 points, five assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes were complimented by Curry's 10 points, 4 assists and no turnovers in 36 minutes. The reigning Big East rookie of the week has committed just two turnovers in his last 75 minutes of play, while shooting better than 50% from the floor. The Friar defense, while allowing DePaul to shoot 65% from the floor in the first half, held the Blue Demons to 30% shooting in the second half, and out-rebounded them by a 31-28 margin, including 11 on the offensive glass.
Some additional notes to pass along… DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright is now 0-5 in his career against Providence, with three of those losses coming by a mere one point each. Two this season, and one as head coach at Richmond… an affiliation with the Big East Conference has yet to create much of a stir for DePaul in Chicago, as there was little to no pre-game coverage in either of the major newspapers (the Sun-Times and the Tribune)…attendance in the Allstate Arena (formerly the Rosemont Horizon) was announced at 7884. From appearances, it looked more like 4-5000 fans were actually in the 17,000 seat arena, which DePaul shares with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, and the Chicago Rush of the AFL… after the team shoot-around Tuesday afternoon, upon returning to the hotel, one of the bell captains' inquired as to the identity of the apparent basketball team arriving. When told this was "Providence," the response was, "College? Never heard of them." When explained further that we were there for a Big East game against the Blue Demons, the bell captain replied, "Oh, that explains it. We're all Big 10 around here." Indeed, the Big 10 Conference corporate offices were just down the street from the team hotel… the Friars have now won four games this season when trailing at halftime… the team is now 9-2 when they out rebound the opponent… and the DePaul game is just the second win this season for the Friars when the opponent shoots a higher percentage overall from the floor. At 11-10 on the season, 4-6 in the Big East, Providence now holds tie-breaking advantages over DePaul (with a home and home sweep), Rutgers and St. John's in the race to reach the Big East tournament. And with wins at home in their final three league games (Pitt, USF, ND), the Friars would reach a minimum of seven conference wins, 14 overall for the season – which could mean a potential post-season bid to the NIT.
That, however, is for us to think about. The team is now thinking "the sky's the limit."
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