Once again, the bugaboo of slow game starts cursed the Friars. Coach Keno Davis watched in disbelief as Providence's game was as ice cold as the weather outside the Dunk during the game's first four minutes. "You look up there and you're down 9-0, or 11-0, and I thought, geez, what is going on?" Keno Davis said. "I don't think you'll see any change of the lineup because I feel we're playing hard, and I thought today our defense was fine, we just weren't getting going offensively. My job is make better play calls or run better offense at the start of the game, where we're attacking and not back on our heels. It's better to have problems early in the year. We're not a good free throw shooting team, we've improved that. We're not a good three point shooting team, I think we'll continue to improve that. And now can we start games better? You start some of those games in the Big East on the road and you're down 11-0, its going to be tough to come back. We'll come up with some ideas and we'll find out if they're the right ones next game."
A quick moving winter storm slammed Rhode Island, with snow reducing visibility to almost zero and traffic on Route 95 moving at a sluggish twenty miles per hour. As a result, only 3,037 fans rattled around the Dunk, negating any home court advantage that PC might have had in what was only their second Big East home opener in the last nine years.
By the end of the first four minutes, St. John's had jumped out to an 11-0 lead, keyed by three baskets by their explosive sophomore, Paris Horne, and three Friar turnovers. A quick Davis timeout signaled a change in strategy as PC applied a full court press after Jonathan Kale broke the scoring drought, and the Storm, missing its injured point guard Malik Boothe, along with senior Anthony Mason, would struggle with the Friars' pressure the rest of the way. "Since the break, we spent half of our time working on our zone defense and half the time working on a man principle defense," said Davis. "Even though we started poorly offensively, I saw some things in the halfcourt that we can bother some teams with. I was ready if St. John's made a run or made several three pointers in a row or did something to bother us, we were going to go to our other defenses. We have to keep improving our man defense as we go along."
With St. John's misfiring and turning the ball over, Providence clawed its way back behind strong play by Marshon Brooks, Sharaud Curry and the frontcourt tandem of Kale and Randall Hanke. "You'll look and see Randall shooting 7-10, but I think what he gave us was a presence on the defensive end of the floor," said Davis. "We were really spread out on their shooters and it left Randall and Jon Kale one on one in there without a lot of help. But he gets those three blocked shots in the first half, it kind of demoralizes you a little bit. He's so long, but I can think of about three others where a guy just missed his shot because of his really good defense. We know he can score and his rebounding is improving, now if he can continue to block shots, he's going to find more minutes on the court."
Around the ten minute mark, PC caught fire and used three quick hoops from Curry and two by Kale to turn a 17-16 deficit into a 26-19 advantage. A three by Brooks pushed the lead to ten, and despite St. John's cutting it to six on a Horne jumper, two successive Hanke hoops sent PC to the locker room with a 33-25 halftime lead.
PC had outscored St. John's 33-14 over the final fourteen minutes, and had battled back to negate the Johnnies early rebounding advantage. Struggling against PC's press, St. John's had 13 first half turnovers and without an experienced point guard, only one assist.
In the second half, PC answered every Storm challenge. After a quick Horne jumper to cut the lead to six, PC answered with two hoops by Jeff Xavier and a layup by Kale to force a Norm Roberts timeout with the Friars up 40-27. Burly forward Sean Evans would score to make it 42-35, but PC stretched the lead back to ten on three points by Curry and a quick layup by Hanke.
Midway through the half, both teams went cold, and three minutes passed with neither teams scoring, the drought broken by two Evans free throws. Weyinmi Efejuku answered with a three pointer, advancing PC's lead to 50-39, and St. John's would not get within ten points for the remaining nine minutes. After an Quincy Roberts jumper made it 57-47, PC ran off eight straight points on three points by Hanke, an Efejuku three and a Curry stop and pop jumper.
The Friars stretched the lead to 73-52 on a Brooks dunk with just over two minutes left, and the lead topped out at 23 points on a Kale layup. With a little over a minute remaining, Davis subbed in four walk-ons, along with Alex Kellogg, and with :24 left, the coach signaled his team not to shoot and dribble out the clock. St. John's kept pressing, however, and Roberts stripped Luke Burchett and went in for a layup with three seconds left, accounting for the final 75-54 score.
This was not a particularly good Storm team. Missing Boothe and Mason, St. John's is painfully young, doesn't shoot well (35% for the game, 2-17 from three, and 6-14 from the foul line) and doesn't handle the ball or pass well (6 assists, 16 turnovers). Justin Burrell played with a full mask and was clearly bothered by it and was a non-factor with 3 points and 3 rebounds. St. John's does have a couple of nice players, though. Paris Horne is extremely quick, a pest on defense, jumps well and shoots well. He had 16 points and 4 steals. Sophomore Sean Evans is a thick 6'8 forward who uses his body well, and had 16 points on 7-9 shooting and 10 boards.
The most stunning stat was PC's bench outscoring St. John's bench by a 32-0 count. "Our bench play stands out," said Davis. "We've been talking about having eight starters. Brian McKenzie comes in and gets four rebounds in the first half and Marshon Brooks and Randall Hanke had big, strong nights for us. To be able to come up with 32 points is going to help us withstand teams' runs, even if its in the first four or five minutes. We might not have the best five guys, but all of a sudden when you take two or three of their guys out to rest them or with foul trouble, we might have the best eight of some of the teams we play this year."
PC outscored a taller Storm team 47-30 in the paint, shot well (49% for the game, 61% in the second half, and 6-18 from three) and outrebounded St. John's 40-38 after a slow start on the glass. "One thing that you might not see when you look at the stat sheet was us outrebounding St. John's, a terrific offensive rebounding team," said Davis. "We limited them to 17 offensive rebounds… we were down at least seven rebounds in the first half and for us to fight all the way back, that shows a determination on the boards, which we're going to need all year."
Randall Hanke had his most active game of the season, leading the way with 17 points on 7-10 shooting, and fellow center Jonathan Kale chipped in with 10 points on 5-7 shooting. Sharaud Curry looked quick and comfortable with 16 points and 8 assists. "I feel pretty good for the last few weeks," said Curry. "With the Big East here, I just have to figure out my energy and my intensity level. Tonight I was able to do that. Just try to install that in the rest of the guys. We had high expectations the last few years, the talent, I think, is here. We just have to go out and play and work hard as a team and get better. I think tonight was very important. We have the opportunity to start the conference off with two good wins and defend our homer court and continue to build."
In addition, Marshon Brooks sparked PC with 15 points, and Geoff McDermott chipped in with 9 boards and 4 assists. And in another piece of welcome news, Alex Kellogg logged seven minutes in his first action since the Brown game. And Keno Davis joined Gordie Chiesa and Rick Barnes as the only Friar coaches to win their Big East debuts.
"It's nice to be 1-0 and at the top of the league. This team needs to be able to play pressure-free," said Davis. "They can't worry about what people are saying about our chances, that we can't play in the top division of the Big East or we can't beat the best. We know we can, we just have to keep getting better. But it might take some pressure off of us if we get a couple of wins to start with. Every time you do that, your team will play with less pressure because they'll feel its us against everybody else, and those shots will start to drop a little easier, not worried that you need this shot. Just focus on what you need to do. And there's no question in my mind that we're so much better than we were when we opened the season against Northeastern. It's dramatic."
PC returns to action on Saturday with a 7:00 game at the Dunk against DePaul. Happy New Year Friar fans!
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