Friars Get Back to Work and Sweep Rutgers

Just days removed from a dramatic Senior Night upset of top-ranked Pittsburgh, the Providence Friars continued work on their NCAA resume on Sunday. At the RAC on the campus of Rutgers University, the Friars hoped to avoid a let-down against the lowly Scarlet Knights. A loss would all but derail any hopes of dancing later this month. The Friars needed to take care of business.

"You never really know how a team is going to react after a win like that," said Friar Head Coach Keno Davis.

On a cold and dreary Sunday afternoon, the mood inside the arena matched the weather outside. It was a meeting between two teams that are heading in two separate directions. The Friars are playing for Selection Sunday, while the Scarlet Knights are just trying to finish the season.

Just two weeks prior these teams met in Providence with the Friars escaping with a close win after leading by 20 at many points in the game. PC fell asleep in the second half of that game leaving many to wonder if they had learned their lesson in preparation for this one.

The first half can be described using only one word: ugly. Both teams struggled early, neither finishing the half over 35%. Though as a positive note, the Friars looked generally good defensively. They pressed for nearly the whole half, and played an aggressive matchup zone. They knew their opponent's limitations and played with anticipation on defense forcing turnovers and forcing many bad shots.

The Scarlet Knights worked to eliminate the Friars' chances. They allowed Geoff McDermott to receive passes, but surrounded him once he caught them. They limited his looks early, both at the basket and at teammates. McDermott threw a few passes away, and the Friars didn't have many good looks at the basket.

After a few lead changes, the Friars woke up late in the first half, ending it in a 13-2 run and a 33-26 lead at the break. Weyinmi Efejuku led the way scoring 12. That would set the pace for the remainder of the game.

The Friars started the second half strong on a 12-4 run, jumping out to a 45-30 lead. The defense stayed consistent and the Friars became much more patient offensively leading to better opportunities.

It looked as if this one was finished as the Friars opened up a 19-point lead midway through the second half. Efejuku continued to lead the way, ultimately finishing the game with 28 points. But just as it happened two weeks ago, the Knights would not go quietly. They went on a 14-0 run bringing the game to one-possession, 62-59. Coach Davis tried his best to stop the bleeding, strategically calling time-outs during the run.

"We didn't execute as well as we had liked later in the second half. Fortunately we had a big enough cushion that we were able to hold on. I credit Rutgers for trying something different…. It changed the momentum of the game," said Davis. "We didn't work well against the zone against RU, but we had played it so well against Syracuse that teams had not played it against us for a while and we hadn't practiced it much. It was a good adjustment by Fred Hill because it was unexpected, especially that late in the game."

"We were having so much success against their M2M, we had to regroup against their zone which was effective. It was tough, we just kept pushing, and our experience carried us in this one to close it out," said Sharaud Curry.

For the first time all afternoon, the RAC came alive. Rutgers fans came as loudly as they could to their feet, as did the many Friar Fanatics who made the trip. It seemed though even then that the Fanatics were a bit more spirited.

Things turned back in the Friars' favor. With the ball in their possession only up three, Jeff Xavier caught a pass far beyond the arc and launched a three. Friartown collectively held its breath, but the shot fell. The Friars never looked back.

Davis acknowledged it wasn't a shot he had drawn up, but felt that eventually something would fall, "When you jack up enough of those shots, one of them has got to go in."

Both teams traded baskets, and then it cam time for the Friars to finish it at the stripe. They got the job done, ultimately shooting 20-25 good for 80%. Efejuku knocked down 15 of 17. His efforts Sunday combined with his performance against Pitt earlier in the week earned him Big East Player of the Week honors, becoming the first Friar since Herbert Hill in 2007 to win it. "Weyinme just played great today, it just seems he just always plays great against Rutgers," said Curry.

Xavier finished with 13 points and after struggling early, McDermott finished strong with 10 points and 8 boards.

Once again, the Friars limited freshman of the year candidate Mike Rosario this time to only 10 points, well below his average. "He's a special player who we knew could have beat us by himself," said Davis. "We were not going to let Rosario get open looks. We game planned to stop him and I couldn't be more pleased with how our team guarded him."

Freshman Gregory Echenique stood out for Rutgers with 14 points and 16 boards.

Still the Friars took care of business earning their 10th conference win for the first time in five years. In doing so, they clinched a first round bye in the Big East Tournament, putting them in prime position for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Though many will still argue the merits of a bid for the Friars, they remain in the discussion.

"I like the way we are playing right now. I had confidence coming into the conference. Sharaud Curry is playing his best basketball right now." said Davis. "Coach Skerry was nearly begging me to get Currry a rest but I felt we had to go with him down the stretch. He was certainly tired but he repeatedly got the ball to Weyinmi on the pick and roll for baskets and trips to the free throw line."

"I felt it was important to finish in the top half of the Big East. If you finish in the top half of the best conference in the country, I can live with that. Whether they put us in or not, I feel that we are deserving," he added. "If you want to make any run in that tournament, you've got to get a bye on that first day, so the win today was a must.."

There is still work to do as the Friars travel to nationally ranked Villanova to finish the regular season on Thursday night. This will be yet another opportunity to beef up their resume in advance of Selection Sunday.

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