The first half was a see-saw affair, where both teams struggled on offense, and neither could shake the other. In fact, only Randall Hanke, who poured in ten first half points, provided any offensive consistency, as the Friars were able to establish an inside game against DePaul's beefy frontcourt.
The half did not end well for Providence, however. After a Dwain Williams jumper evened the score at 26-all with just over three minutes to play, DePaul closed the half on a 9-2 run, keyed by four points by Will Walker. It could have been worse. A missed Hanke shot turned into two missed jumpers by DePaul in the closing seconds and the Blue Demons headed to the lockerroom up 35-28.
"I was happy that I went into the lockerroom at halftime and the guys were clapping when I got in there and they didn't have their heads hanging," said Tim Welsh. "The Seton Hall game we had the lead at halftime and heads were down. That's the difference. Great leadership from our upperclassmen, a lot of talk in the lockerroom. Jon's an emotional leader, Geoff, Charles Burch. I told them, our motto for the game tonight, don't worry about the score, don't look at the scoreboard, just keep playing. Just keep playing basketball, I'll manage the score, I'll keep track of the score tonight. And to their credit they did a good job with that because at halftime we were losing by seven and they came right out and kept playing."
It took just over two minutes into the second half for PC to erase the Demons' lead. Behind a layup by Hanke, and threes by Williams and Jeff Xavier, the Friars regained the lead at 36-35 and would never give it back. In fact, PC opened the half on a 32-10 run that saw the Friars grab a 61-45 lead with 8:22 to play. The run was keyed by baskets by Hanke, Brian McKenzie, who played a solid all-around game, tough inside moves by Jonathan Kale, threes by Williams and a couple of layups by Alex Kellogg.
"Our rebounding was the key," said Welsh. "The first half we got outrebounded pretty good, the second half, I think it was 23-9 on the glass and we got the running game going and we wanted to exploit Randall. We thought we could get him some good looks down low, he's feeling better now, he had a tough run after he got popped at Connecticut, but now he's feeling like he's back to where he's going to be a consistent guy every night for us and Jon gives us that toughness behind him."
After that, the closest that DePaul got was at 75-65 with 1:40 left, but PC hit their free throws down the stretch as the Friars ran clock on each possession and DePaul was forced to foul. Six free throws by Williams (20 points, 4-5 threes) cemented the win, which pushed PC's record to 13-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big East. DePaul, meanwhile, dropped its fourth straight to fall to 9-13, 4-6 in the league.
"The thing I like," said Welsh. "is that we didn't jack all these threes up. We played good, balanced offense. That's the least amount of threes we took all season (7-13). That's a good sign that we can score 79 points and not have to rely on threes because you have to have balance in all parts of the court in this league. You can't live and die every night with that."
PC was led by Randall Hanke's 21 points on 8-13 shooting, and the big man added 5 rebounds. "Solid numbers tonight," said Welsh. "Solid numbers on the glass. If he keeps battling he's fine, he's a presence in there. I like that he rotated to help tonight and just changed some shots with his size. My issue with him is that he's 6'10 and he plays 6'3 because he bends his knees and he's got his hands down. If he raises his hands up, he doesn't have to block shots, he's got a wide wingspan and he'll change people's look in there, just so people don't feel they can freewheel down there. And we've got people to help him out. Once Geoff starts banging, Randle'll get a few (rebounds), some will fall into his hands. But nobody can score like him. He‘s amazing talent that he can put the ball in at that speed. They were pushing him pretty good. He's got that quick move to the rim and guys were looking for him."
While Jeff Xavier struggled again with a poor shooting night (1-6, 3 points), Geoff McDermott stepped up to record a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards, shrugging off a knee injury that caused him to have the knee drained on Monday. "Our medical team have done a great job with Geoff's treatment. It's an ongoing thing, there's no structural damage in there, we have to watch his rest, we gave him rest yesterday and Sunday and today he had the smile back, he said he felt great, so that made me feel a lot better this afternoon. He makes everybody on the floor better."
A basketball season is an ongoing process, and this one just might not be over. "As we analyze our team after every game and obviously we didn't play well the other night," said Welsh. "You wake up and you want to kill your team, but there are damaged psyches on every team when you lose a few, but you have to look at how you're losing the game, if its lack of effort or lack of togetherness, that's one thing, but if its lack of execution or missing some shots, you just need to keep their confidence up."
"I didn't want to turn the banquet table upside down and bring them in for double sessions. We talked about our psyche and our confidence level and our passion for the game and just our grit We did a lot of talking the past couple of days. We did more talking than practicing. Our guys know how to play, its just our confidence level. We started hitting our shots tonight a little bit, we played tougher. The key to our game is really holding people in the 60s, we do that and we don't have to rely on making all these threes to win games. I'd rather have solid defense every night and the threes will open up, especially now that we have a little more of an inside game with Randall."
"We had to try to get out of the east-west game we had the other night where we were just going side to side. Tonight we tried to free our guards up a little better, a little more movement off the ball, we tried to anchor our big guys down in the corner and roll off screens and when the ball got reversed, our bigs are pretty good catching on the run, our guards have to show a lot harder. When we have the right space, its hard to rotate against us."
A little assist from an old friend never hurts either. "Every game I feel the same way. I told the guys to just play with passion tonight, play with grit, passion," said Welsh. "I had my old buddy Corey Wright come in yesterday and talk about fighting. Guys looked at him and half of them didn't know who he was, and I said, yeah this guy played for us. He was a fighter, he used to fight me too, we used to fight all the time, we used to yell at each other. I was really young then, I'm a lot older now. That was ten years ago. He came into my office on Monday and he said, Coach, what's up with the body language, guys look like they're losing confidence. I said yeah, that's a great call. I said why don't you come back tonight and tell them that. Sometimes its good to hear it from a guy who's played. He gave a nice message to the guys and we kept reiterating that. They're going to make mistakes, you fight through it and we've got great, loyal fans and you saw them there tonight. When our guys fight with grit and play hard, they appreciate it. That's all you've got to give them. You've got to give them that. You make mistakes and play hard, they don't care. But if you have bad body language and you're not working with each other, everything is going to be difficult. Hey, I hear all the stuff, it doesn't bother me. I'm a big man, I know what its all about, but they're young, they're kids so I've got to protect them, I've got top keep them up, keep their confidence up. There's a lot of games left. It was three days of psychology."
Now its up to the Friars to keep their new found philosophy rolling when they travel to Carnesecca Arena to take on a struggling St. John's team on Saturday. The Red Storm may not be playing well, but as PC has learned the hard way, any road win in the Big East is a good win.
Friars Exorcize Their Demons, 79-65
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