St. John's, under coach Norm Roberts, has made a reputation for itself as a tough, hard-nosed defensive team, and any game against the Johnnies is going to turn into a rock fight. That's exactly what happened at the Dunk in front of a sellout crowd.
On Providence's part, it probably was to be expected that the Friars would come in a little flat. PC was coming off of two tough road losses that many feel may have ended the Friars NCAA hopes. On top of that, the quick turnaround from a Thursday night game to a Saturday noon contest, complicated matters even more.
"Some of our guys looked like they didn't have much gas left in their tanks," said Tim Welsh. "Sometimes a quick turnaround after a tough loss is the best thing mentally, but not physically. Herb (Hill) and Geoff (McDermott) didn't have the energy level that they usually do."
The Friars flatness showed up early, as a slew of lazy passes by McDermott and Sharaud Curry led to easy Red Storm baskets. The unforced turnovers translated to a quick 12-8 lead for St. John's after a Eugene Lawrence three. With Providence playing a 2-3 zone, St. John's was able to find the high post player at the foul line, who then had a bevy of options available… take the foul line jumper, look down low, or kick it to Lawrence or Anthony Mason, Jr. for a three.
The saving grace for PC in the first half was Weyinmi Efejuku, who bounced back from some tough outings, to pour in fifteen first half points, on 7-10 shooting. Efejuku's drives to the hoop kept St. John's from extending their half-long lead. "I told Weyinmi, you've got to go," said Welsh. "He had a funeral last week, his grandfather passed away, he had to go to Jamaica, back and forth. These are kids… things like this throw them off kilter."
The Johnnies led 30-28 at the half, and in reality, Providence was fortunate to be that close. PC hadn't played well, had been sloppy with the ball, Hill looked flat on his feet, and at times, St. John's had threatened to run away. But Efejuku and a spirited effort on the glass had kept the game close.
To open the second half, it was the Friars who came out punching. A Hill layup tied the score, and his free throw put PC ahead. After a McDermott jumper, a Curry three, free throws and a layup by Efejuku and an alley-oop dunk by McDermott, the lead peaked at ten, at 42-32 with 13:49 to go. That run gave PC control, but St. John's would creep back.
Missed shots and turnovers opened the door and the Johnnies began attacking the middle with Lamont Hamilton (20 points, 9 rebounds). A load inside, Hamilton scored on an assortment of short shots and free throws, and St. John's pulled to within 52-48 on a Ricky Torres reverse layup with 5:26 left.
A Hill layup and free throws by Jon Kale and Curry pushed PC back to a 60-52 lead, but Hamilton and Torres brought the lead back to 60-56 with 1:42 to go. That brought up the key moment of the game. Curry missed a three pointer and the ball looked like it was going out of bounds, but McDermott ran it down in the corner and passed inside to Hill for a dunk and a foul. Hill's free throw made it 63-56 with 1:02 to go, and the final minute turned into a session of St. John's fouling and PC hitting its free throws.
While the lead dipped to three points twice on a couple of long three pointers, free throws down the stretch by Curry and Efejuku sealed the Friars win. In all, PC hit 18-20 free throws for the game, and they needed every one to hold off the Red Storm, who hit 15-16 of their own.
The win improves PC to 16-9 on the season and 6-6 in the Big East. With the win, PC likely clinches at least an NIT berth and likely punched its Big East Tournament ticket. St. John's, meanwhile falls to 15-12 overall and 6-8 in the league. The Friars take on West Virginia Tuesday night at the Dunk in their next tilt... and PC will need to play better, because a repeat of this performance will likely lead to homecourt disappointment.
PC has struggled with depth issues all season, and that's been exascerbated by Charles Burch's back injury, which leaves PC with no frontcourt depth, and in this game, Dwain Williams was back on campus with the flu. As a result, players like Hill and McDermott are forced to play extended minutes and they clearly need rest. PC's five starters – McDermott, Kale, Hill, Curry and Efejuku all played at least 30 minutes; Brian McKenzie played 18 and Ray Hall played 7. That's it, a seven man rotation in a physical game coming off a tough road trip… PC beat up St. John's on the glass, outrebounding them by a 39-24 margin, including 15 offensive rebounds… McDermott had 10 rebounds, his first double digit rebound game in his last nine games… Hill chipped in with 16 points and 11 rebounds… PC's only bench points were from a layup by Hall… PC normally shoots close to 50% as a team, and won shooting 41.7% against St. John's tough defense… "In the first half we had too many east-west passes," said Welsh. "Really sixth grade passes. I can stomach one a game, but we had three or four that we just handed to them." PC had 9 turnovers (which seemed low) in the first half, only 7 in the second.
Friars Outlast St. John's, 71-66
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