They did come to play, and they played well at times, but not quite well enough overall. The end result was a 90-78 setback in overtime to the Bradley Braves, ending PC's season in the opening round of the NIT, and finishing 18-13 overall for the season.
The major concern going into the match-up with Bradley was defending their three-point shooting – a red hot 43% from outside of the arc for the season, which led the Missouri Valley Conference. They also sank 335 3's on the season, again the top mark in the MVC, so after allowing 17 three-point field goals against West Virginia in the Big East Tournament, getting to the Braves' shooters was paramount. For the most part, the Friars' 2-3 zone, with match-up tendencies thrown into the mix, did the job on the Bradley big guns. However, in stretching the defense out to the perimeter, PC failed to recover on the defensive rebounding end. The result was an un-Friar like 37-47 disadvantage on the backboards for the game, losing the board battle to a team that ranked last (out of 10 teams) in the MVC in rebound margin.
After scoring the first two baskets of the game, PC quickly gave up 9 unanswered points to fall in an early hole. Thanks in part, however, to a defensive effort that consistently pressured the perimeter, the Friars managed to pull close after falling behind 19-10 in the opening minutes. Led by Herbert Hill's 12 first half points, and 11 more from Weyinme Efejuku, PC took the lead right before the half on a steal and an Efejuku dunk to go into the lockerroom leading 40-38. Much of the success on the defensive side came from defending the three, and forcing the Braves to take two-point attempts. They missed more than they made, but that was a trend that would not last.
After some give-and-take early in the second half, PC managed to lead by 4 at 63-59 with 7:43 to play. But with several chances to stretch that lead even further, turnovers and poor decision-making ultimately did them in. Throw in poor free-throw shooting, and you've got a recipe for disaster on the road. Yet, the Friars hung tough. Senior guard Will Franklin led the second half offensive effort with a couple of 12-foot jumpers, as the Braves suddenly found a mid-range game they didn't have in the first half. Down by five, PC responded with outside shots from Efejuku (career high 28 points) and inside from Hill. Chances to grab control fell by the wayside with missed free throws, which led to the games' final moments. Down three with :08.8 left on the clock, Efejuku launched a 21 footer from the left wing that connected, and sent the game into OT tied at 74.
The reprieve was short-lived, however.
In the extra period, the Friars were outscored 16-4, thanks to three mid-range jumpers by Franklin, who found a screener to get in between himself and Hill in the lane, and a 7-7 performance from the line by junior guard Daniel Ruffin. Conversely, PC managed just 10-17 from the line in the second half and overtime, and missed the front end of one-and-one's that could have been the difference. Actually, it was the difference – for Bradley.
Hill finished his Providence career with his 14th double-double of the season, 19 points and 14 rebounds. In addition to Efejuku's career high 28 points, only one other Friar managed to hit double figures, Sharaud Curry with 10 points before fouling out late in regulation. Again, the defensive strategy on Bradley's shooters was sound, but the end result came from the Braves anticipating misses and going after rebounds. 6-3 guard J.J. Tauai, a senior from Missouri, responded with a career high17 rebounds to match his 17 points, playing the wing most of the night. For much of the second half, Bradley played with four guards on the floor, and only one player taller than 6-5. PC could never take advantage of the mismatch, largely due to 23 turnovers leading to 25 Bradley points, and the missed free throws.
While the Friar defense did limit Bradley to a sub-par 5-17 performance from three-point range (and leading shooter Jeremy Crouch, 51% from three, was just 3-7), the Braves more than made up for it by outscoring PC 27-13 from the line, winning the board battle in impressive fashion, and scoring off of Friar mistakes.
Playing in Peoria? The Friars did play well at times. They just didn't play well enough, or for long enough, to win. A familiar refrain to the 2006-07 season, one that ends with arguably more questions unanswered than at the beginning of the year. It will make for an interesting off-season, to be sure, with sights set squarely on reaching the NCAA's.
Now that the NIT is run by the NCAA, the travel plans of the road teams are also determined by the NCAA. In the days of the "old NIT," perhaps we would have seen a PC-UMass match-up in the opening round, most likely at the Dunk, and perhaps 4-5,000 fans would have attended (5,300 was the official attendance at the last PC NIT home game in 2003). Seeding the tournament similar to the NCAA tournament has all but thrown the "old hat" out of the window. While the NIT committee can adjust a team's seed by a line (up or down) in order to create a regional match-up, they also still recognize the need to create income, as the old tournament did. MasterCard is the tournament's presenting sponsor. And even though the NCAA paid for the Providence charter flight to Peoria, IL (after all available commercial opportunities were first exhausted), they still sent the Friars to a place that treats the NIT differently than most. 8304 rabid fans, even at a reduced ticket price ($10 and up, students could get in for $1) were more than ready to receive a Big East team. Considering the alternatives, it seems the NIT committee (comprised of former coaches) is at least business-smart, if not wise…travel plans to return home were not finalized when the team left T.F. Green on Tuesday, with several contingencies in place pending the outcome of Wednesday's first-round games…Bradley has a solid history of playing Big East schools, with a record of 86-97 against the 16 teams currently in the league. The Braves beat DePaul 78-58 to open the season at home at Carver Arena, and then pasted Rutgers 101-72 during a Thanksgiving holiday tournament in Chicago. Add to that a 72-66 win over Pittsburgh during last year's NCAA Tournament second round, and Bradley owned a five game win streak overall against Big East schools going into the NIT. That win streak is now at six games, and counting…7-foot center Patrick O'Bryant, who left BU after last season's Sweet 16 run as a sophomore for the NBA (Golden State), was the first-ever sophomore draft-lottery entry into the NBA draft out of the Missouri Valley Conference…recently, the MVC named its' all time starting five, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the league's existence. How about this line up? Larry Bird (Indiana State), Hersey Hawkins (Bradley), Xavier McDaniel (Wichita State), Ed McCauley (Saint Louis), Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati). The coach? Henry Iba (Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State)…Bradley coach Jim Les, even though he became a player-of-the-year in the MVC for the Braves in '86, actually started his career elsewhere. He began at Cleveland State, then transferred to BU his final three seasons. He played seven seasons in the NBA, most notably with Sacramento, where he led the league in three-point accuracy in 1990-91. A similar career to PC's own Joe Hassett, who always says he would've led the NBA in three's, if they HAD the three during his prime (you're just showing your age with that one, Joe!)…Kevin McNamara's article in Tuesday's Journal concerning Geoff McDermott's torn meniscus in his knee did shed some light on the struggles he has had during the latter part of the season. However, it should be pointed out here that McDermott's lack of lift and dwindling offensive game due to his knee problem was originally pointed out by Joe Hassett during our broadcast of the Villanova game on January 23 – when Geoff originally suffered the tear. Hey, you throw a guy under the bus, you've got to give some credit where it's due, too…the officiating crew of Anthony Jordan, John Goble and Bruce Bell were from the Southeastern Conference (SEC)…noted several times during the commercial breaks on the radio, and even commented on by the players on the chartered flight back home after the game, was the enthusiasm of the Bradley crowd throughout the entire game. Not only did their student section stand throughout the entire 45 minutes, most of the fans in the stands stood throughout as well – including the older fans in attendance…Carver Arena is a little more than a mile from the Bradley campus (similar to PC's campus distance from the Dunk), located in downtown Peoria. Opened in 1982, it is also undergoing renovations, like the Dunk, to the tune of approximately $50 million. The Illinois High School Association state championships are held in the building, with the Class 2A title to be decided there this weekend…if the Friars had won, they would have chartered immediately to Birmingham, AL, for a further commute (about 2 hours) into Starkville, MS to play Mississippi State. They would not have returned home first.
On The Road With John Rooke: Bradley
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