Sacred Heart Puts A Scare Into PC

Shades of the Harvard game of 2006-07… the Friars escaped a determined upset bid by Sacred Heart, 94-89. But in improving to 7-3, the game suggested more questions than answers for Providence as the Big East portion of the season bears down.

The Harvard game, won by PC 101-92, provided a harbinger of the defensive problems that the Friars endured throughout the season. Will this Sacred Heart game be remembered in the same way?

The catcalls rained down on the PC bench from the sparse crowd of 4933 as the Friars proceeded to blow a 60-47 second half lead. In a span of five minutes, the 3-7 Pioneers caught the Friars at 67-all with just over ten minutes to play, and free throws by Ryan Litke and Brice Brooks put Sacred Heart up 70-67 with a little under ten to play.

The first half saw Sacred Heart hang tough for the first eight minutes, assuming a 19-15 lead, but Providence began to assert itself as Weyinmi Efejuku scored eight straight points on two arcing three pointers and a driving layup, followed by a Jamine Peterson slashing slam for a 25-19 Friar lead.

From there, PC maintained and increased its lead for the final eight minutes of the half, but a pattern was emerging. The Friars would score, but so would the Pioneers. PC led 47-33 with just over a minute left on a Randall Hanke layup, but Luke Granato answered with a three and after an Efejuku drive, Drew Shubik knocked down two free throws. With six seconds left, Weyinmi turned the ball over and Sacred Heart had a chance to cut the lead to single digits but Brooks missed a three pointer at the buzzer and PC headed to the lockerroom up 49-38.

Up until PC had built their 60-47 lead, Geoff McDermott, Brian McKenzie, Hanke and Efejuku had all shot the ball well, but what followed was a spate of sloppiness, turnovers and fouls, along with nonexistent defense that allowed Sacred Heart to climb out of its hole. And most troubling of all, over the final fifteen minutes of the game, with few exceptions, PC could not get any stops.

The Friars played man to man defense for the entire game. "I kept thinking about about (going to zone)," said Tim Welsh. "But my crack committee on the bench kept saying no. We stayed on them but they started hitting deep threes. They were patient and ran a lot of good stuff."

"We had one of those nights where nothing went well on defense," continued Welsh. "Sometimes it was the pressure, sometimes it was slow closeouts, sometimes it was slow switches, sometimes it was not getting back. It was one of those nights where it was always something different."

The Friars were unable to stop the Pioneers both inside and outside. One of the problems encountered by PC was foul trouble by Hanke. Randall had played well offensively but collected three fouls and with him on the bench, PC had no height in the middle. Sacred Heart attacked the paint at will, and when that was closed off, passed back outside for an array of open three pointers.

For most of the final ten minutes, Welsh went with a small lineup of McDermott, McKenzie, Dwain Williams, Efejuku and Charles Burch or Jeff Xavier. That lineup was quick, but gave up a number of second chance opportunities in the paint. "Randall was good but he got four fouls in the second half and I had to take him out," said Welsh. "He's got to learn to play without fouling. He'll be better when we play more zone against some people."

PC retook the lead on a McKenzie layup off a steal at 73-71 with eight minutes left, and for the next five minutes traded baskets with Sacred Heart. Missed free throws by McDermott kept PC's lead down, but the Friars led 85-78 after another McKenzie layup with two minutes left. Three point bombs by Corey Hassan kept Sacred Heart close but free throws down the stretch, wrapped around a dunk by Hanke, finally iced it for the Friars.

The Friars resemble a ship that keeps springing leaks. Prior to the ten day exam break, Welsh had said that the team had spent so much time focusing on defense, that the offense had suffered and that during the break, more attention would be spent on getting the offense running smoothly. Well, except for a sloppy five minute drought in the second half, the offense ran pretty well, but the man defense looked hellacious. Now, with two days until Florida State comes to town, Welsh now has to take another hard look at the defense. Can all of the leaks on this team be plugged? We will find out in a hurry.

Sharaud Curry made his season debut and looked as quick as ever, playing nine minutes, seven in the first half, and knocked down a three pointer, while also displaying a wicked cross over dribble that left his defender in the dust. "Sharaud makes everyone better," said Welsh. "I just wanted Sharaud to get his feet wet. He's still not able to get up on people on defense because of conditioning. Certain things on the defensive end, he slipped up on. That's why I didn't go back to him."

• PC had three players with 20 points or more, led by Efejuku, with 22 points and 10 rebounds. "Weyinmi rebounded well," said Welsh. "I've been on him about that. I think he should be able to average six or seven a game." McDermott had 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six blocks, while Hanke had 20 points on 8-11 shooting and 5 boards. It's not often that PC has had three players score 20 in a game and yet, the Friars were still life and death with the Pioneers.

• Jeff Xavier played 21 minutes but never really got going, with 9 points on 3-7 shooting. "We've got to get Jeff going," said Welsh. "He's in a little bit of a shooting rut."

• The rotation continues to be a problem, as Welsh shuffled players in and out. "We're still trying to mix and mesh," Welsh said. "Some guys play offense but not defense and some guys play defense but not offense." Players like Jonathan Kale and Ray Hall were almost nonexistent in this game, and this is yet another problem that needs to addressed quickly.

Florida State Preview, by Steve Hartnett

Florida State is a team that has been on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble for two years in a row. Last season, a wrist injury to 6-1 point guard Toney Douglas sent the Seminoles into a swoon that they never really could recover from. Despite that, the ‘Noles won a lot of big games last year with their explosive guards and future NBA player Al Thornton in the middle. Florida State victories included opponents like Duke, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, and of course, Providence.

Leonard Hamilton's team has begun this season with a win at Florida and most recently a victory over the College of Charleston on Tuesday. Uche Echefu scored 17 points and had nine rebounds in the win as Florida State came from behind for a 66-61 win. Hamilton is hoping that with help from front court players like Echefu and a healthy Toney Douglas at point guard, the team can make another run at the NCAA tournament.

Florida State is primarily a perimeter team, with Douglas, 6-4 senior Jason Rich, 6-2 senior Isaiah Swann, and 6-3 senior Ralph Mims off the bench who all give the 'Noles options in the back court. All of Florida State's guards can penetrate and drive, while also hitting enough three point shots to keep defenses honest. Swann shot 41% from three last year, and is also an excellent defender. Swann and company gave the Friar back court fits last year and forced numerous turnovers when the Friars did not have Sharaud Curry to anchor the point. Curry may not be much help to the Friars in this year's matchup either, as he is just returning from a fractured foot.

Keys to the Game

1) Limit turnovers: Providence never was in the game last year, largely due to an inability to avoid steal and turnovers. Florida State loves to jump the passing lanes and start the fast break. PC's players must cut to the basket for backdoor opportunities if Florida State overplays the perimeter looking for steals.

2) Transition Defense: Poor transition defense has been the weakest link in the Friar defense this year, and that problem was on clear display vs. Sacred Heart. Providence must hustle back on all changes of possession, because teams will continue to exploit the Friars in this area until it is resolved.

3) Deliver the ball inside: Providence should be able to get some good shots on the interior vs. Florida State given FSU's three guard perimeter defense, and it is the responsibility of PC's guards to keep moving forward, getting the ball to Geoff McDermott, Randall Hanke, Jon Kale, and Greedy Peterson, who all must finish inside. This emphasis should eventually open up some perimeter shots as well. An over reliance on the 3 point shot is not going to be enough to win this game.

4) Make Free Throws: Florida State is likely to be very aggressive, gambling on defense. The Friars may need to knock down some key foul shots to pull this one out.

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