Friars Topple #1 Ranked Pittsburgh

For only the second time in Providence College basketball history, the Friars knocked off the number one ranked team in the nation, as PC hammered the Pitt Panthers, 81-73. And the win could not have come at a better time for a Providence squad still focused on making the NCAA Tournament. PC improves to 17-11 overall and 9-7 in the Big East.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't PC-Michigan in 1976. That game featured two nationally ranked heavyweights throwing body punches at one another for forty minutes, no more than six points separating the two teams in either direction. And when forty minutes wasn't enough to settle the affair, the two teams played through two overtime periods before Providence prevailed by one point.

But this was a chance to knock off a number one ranked team, and those chances don't come around very often. In fact, in the past sixty years, PC had matched up with the number one team on only eleven other occasions, and only the one time, thirty-three years ago, against Michigan, had the Friars been victorious.

In terms of basketball games, there have certainly been much better games. In this contest, Providence took control early, led by eighteen at the half, and held on down the stretch for the win. This game was more about sweating out the final fifteen minutes and surviving, than it was about truly being a classic basketball game. But what made it special, and what will ultimately mark it in Friar annals, is that it was a win against the number one team in the land. And that's why, just as fans still say ‘I was at PC-Michigan in 1976', thirty-three years later; thirty-three years from now, fans will also say "I was at PC-Pittsburgh in 2009.'

Truth be told, most fans – and most scribes - gave the Friars little chance to hang with the top rated Panthers, who came into the game 25-2 and 12-2 in the Big East. But fans and writers don't play the games. And the Friar players and coaches were confident as they took the floor.

"The ability to guard the three point shot has been a problem at times for us. We saw that problem against Louisville, against Notre Dame. We saw that Pittsburgh wasn't one of these teams that rains threes on you," said Keno Davis. "They drive it inside. That's not necessarily better, not that we're necessarily built for that, but it was nice for a change not having to worry so much about the perimeter."

On Senior Night, a night in which PC's large senior class – Geoff McDermott, Weyinmi Efejuku, Randall Hanke, Jonathan Kale, and Jeff Xavier, along with walk-ons Chris Baudinet, Connor Heine and Brian Beloin, and team managers Mike Peters and Brian Wendth – was honored, the seniors stepped up and made big plays, one by one.

As 11,887 fans screamed themselves hoarse, the Friars rode the emotion of the pre-game ceremonies and the crowd to stun Pittsburgh out of the gate. Providence scored the first two baskets of the game and when McDermott cruised through the lane for a layup to make it 6-2, Jamie Dixon, sensing his team back on its heels, called a quick timeout.

Still the Friars poured it on. A three by Efejuku pushed the lead to 13-4 and Providence led 21-12 halfway through the half before Pitt closed the gap to 29-25 on baskets by Jermaine Dixon and DeJuan Blair and a three by Ashton Gibbs. But PC answered in a big way, closing the half on a 15-1 run, keyed by a drive and dunk by McDermott, a baseline jumper by Kale, a slam by Brian McKenzie and a dagger three by Sharaud Curry with forty seconds left. The Friars bounced to the lockerroom with a commanding 44-26 lead.

So what had been different for Providence? For one, the Friars had roared out of the gate, avoiding the lethargic starts that have plagued them in recent games. For another, PC played an extremely active and vocal matchup zone defense that seemed to anticipate Pittsburgh's every move. And the Friars attacked the basket, driving inside and making the extra pass for open looks. For the half, PC had outrebounded the nation's top rebounding team, 19-14, had passed for 13 assists against just 3 turnovers and had shot 53%. Kale had scored 12 points, most on short pops over Blair. In return, both Kale and McDermott had put their bodies on Blair, making it difficult for him to get good looks, and limiting him to 6 points. In fairness, Pitt had often been its own worst enemy, committing 10 turnovers, and missing a number of easy layups and short jumpers, including a wide open layup after a steal.

Pittsburgh looked no more ready to start the second half than they did the first. A layup by Efejuku, followed by a deep three that rimmed twice before dropping through for Xavier and another layup by Curry pushed PC's lead to 51-31, and precipitated another quick Dixon timeout with 17:22 remaining. This time, though, Pittsburgh responded with its trademark aggressive defense, and the Friars' offense stalled.

Over a period of nearly seven minutes, PC failed to score and remained stuck on 52 points. Part of the problem was that PC stopped attacking the basket, seeming to prefer running the shot clock down in an effort to shorten the game, but often resulting in one on one drives to the hoop, poor shots or turnovers. Meanwhile, Pitt, while still not firing on all cylinders themselves, began to close the gap. A jumper by Brad Wanamaker trimmed the lead to 52-42, and that's when Randall Hanke made his biggest contribution. Hanke scored over Blair, and after Sam Young missed a jumper, Curry fired a bullet to Hanke, who drew Blair's fourth foul and scored again. Hanke's free throw opened up a fifteen point lead again, with ten minutes to play.

Now PC's offense was running again, and threes by Xavier and Curry kept the lead at 67-50 with just over six minutes to play. Pittsburgh would not go away, as freshman Gibbs nailed two consecutive right corner threes, and when Wanamaker stripped Curry, leading to a layup by Levance Fields, the lead was just nine. A three pointer by Young made it 73-66, and Curry and Fields traded pairs of free throws. When McKenzie turned the ball over, Gibbs missed a three but Blair quickly flipped in a rebound layup and the Friars led by just 75-70 with :50 left.

Now Pitt was forced to foul, and McKenzie calmly swished two free throws. On Pitt's ensuing inbounds play, Blair set a moving pick and wiped out Xavier, fouling Blair out of the game and giving the ball to Providence. Efejuku made one free throw for an eight point lead, and McDermott blocked a Fields layup attempt, leading to two more Efejuku free throws and an 80-70 lead with :31 to play. Gibbs converted a layup and was fouled by Xavier to cut the lead to seven, but after a Curry free throw, Xavier stripped Gilbert Brown of the ball with twenty ticks left, and the Friars had pulled the upset.

For the game, PC had contained Pitt on the glass, being outrebounded by just 33-27. "We stayed with the number one team as far as rebounding after getting outrebounded by Notre Dame by fourteen," said Davis. "We stayed with them and no one had more than five rebounds." The Panthers committed 18 turnovers, while PC hit 22-29 free throws and shot 49% for the game, dishing out 18 assists against 9 turnovers. Five Friars were in double figures, led by Efejuku with 16 points, Curry with 15, Kale with 13, McDermott with 11 and Hanke with 10. Pitt was led by Blair, who had an off game despite 17 points, Young with 16, and Gibbs with 15.

And now Providence can even start dreaming about the NCAA Tournament again. "It puts us in the conversation," Davis commented. "After tonight, people around the Big East and around the nation will be talking about us. It's nice for the players, its nice for recruiting. Otherwise, we'd just be talking about the Big East Tournament."

"I couldn't be prouder of our team," said Davis. "After Notre Dame took it to us, we really bounced back and improved. We needed every bit of effort to give ourselves a chance. There was incredible energy in the Dunk tonight. and our players fed off the emotion of the crowd. If we don't have that crowd tonight, we don't have a chance. Tonight they gave us a lift."

Basketball seasons tend to blend together, one season running into the next, until a certain blurring occurs. Only big moments stand out and serve to distinguish one season from another. Championships won or postseason success constitute big moments. And so this senior class, maligned for not winning important games, or delivering postseason victories, has finally given fans one indelible big moment, one moment that will always be remembered in Friar annals, a win over a top ranked team, one of the rarest big moments of all.

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