Friar fans and players seem to respond to playing against UConn in a way that is unlike any other rival. A raucous crowd of 11,136 fans were loud and on their feet right from the get-go as they welcomed an opponent that had just knocked off Texas, the number one ranked team in the nation, on Saturday. On the other hand, PC was coming off a dispiriting 109-105 overtime loss to South Florida, a loss that had caused coach Keno Davis to publicly call out his team as "not being good enough."
At first glance, Providence seemed to be at a distinct height and size disadvantage against Connecticut, and the Huskies broke out of the gate by jamming the ball inside and controlling the boards. Jerome Dyson buried two three pointers and Gavin Edwards (17 points) and Stanley Robinson (14 points) muscled inside to open up a 14-5 lead, before Duke Mondy responded with two jumpers sandwiched around a Marshon Brooks dunk. An Edwards jumper made it 22-12 and the Huskies still led 29-19, with seven minutes to play before PC began to claw back.
A Mondy three was followed by a Jamine Peterson strip and dunk, and when a suddenly cold Dyson (3-14 shooting, 12 points) missed, Brooks banged home a three, and Peterson jammed home a Mondy miss and just like that, the Friars were tied at 31-all. With time running down, UConn counterpunched with a Kemba Walker (17 points, 8 rebounds) lay-up and a Robinson dunk, but PC closed the half with a three by Peterson, and after a miss by Robinson, a lay-up by Bilal Dixon gave the Friars a 36-35 advantage at the break. "No one ever accused Bilal of not having energy," Keno Davis said with a smile. "I get excited about how good he can become."
In the first half, Providence had battled back to knot the rebounding battle at 23-all, and had run with the Huskies. More importantly, PC was defending better than it had all season, was contesting shots, and was playing with a high level of energy and desire. Peterson was leading the way with 12 points and 5 boards, Mondy had chipped in 8 important points, Vincent Council was matching the quickness of Dyson and Walker, and Davis was spreading the minutes around, reaching deep into his bench for Russ Permenter and Ray Hall.
The Huskies are a team loaded with long, sleek athletes who love to get out in transition, and who run on made baskets as well as misses. What UConn does not do well, however, is shoot jumpers. The backcourt trio of Dyson, Walker and Donnell Beverly are not strong perimeter shooters and in the half-court, Connecticut's offense sometimes sputters. As the second half opened, after dunks by Edwards and Robinson, Davis called a quick time-out to take off the press. From that point on, the Friars were going to play half-court zone and force the Huskies to win from outside.
The Friars responded by seizing the lead on two free throws and a jumper by Sharad Curry. A lay-up by Mondy and hoop by Curry made it 51-44 before three free throws and a lay-up by Walker closed the gap. PC led 55-50 after a Peterson dunk before an 8-0 run keyed by Edwards and Robinson put UConn back on top 58-55 with 9:35 to play. Over the final nine minutes, however, the game belonged to the Friars.
A Bilal Dixon dunk on a pretty pass from Council and a twisting drive and lay-up by Council gave PC a lead they wouldn't relinquish, the beginning of a 14-0 Friar run that featured two highlight reel dunks by Peterson, and a 69-58 lead with just 4:40 remaining, and the Huskies' tongues were dragging. An Alex Oriakhi free throw snapped the streak, but Dixon and Peterson responded with dunks wrapped around another pretty drive and lay-up by Council. With UConn forced to foul, PC kept the ball in the hands of Curry, who whirled around the floor, killing valuable time, and calmly swished six of six free throws to ice the game.
"I was pretty confident we were going to bounce back," Davis said. "But I couldn't be confident that we were going to bounce back like this. Not to the point where we would play not only our best game of the year, but our best game of the year by far. Sometimes as a coach, you have to be brutally honest and hit them between the eyes to motivate them. In the locker-room, the team didn't have an adverse reaction to that. Then you build them back up."
In the second half, PC was 0-7 from three-point land, but shot 49% as a result of driving to the basket at will. Providence ran pick and rolls to the basket and curled around the edges on dribble drives to the basket repeatedly, and UConn seemed helpless to stop the plays. Council, in particular, was impressive in blasting past Walker and Dyson, and getting to the rim. The freshman point finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and handled the Huskies' pressure with ease.
Most impressively, PC dominated the glass, out-rebounding the bigger Huskies by a 53-38 margin, including 24-12 on the offensive boards. The Friars had 14 steals and forced 19 turnovers, 13 in the first half. Peterson led the way with 23 points, 14 rebounds and 4 steals, and was joined in double figures by Curry with 18 points, including 10-10 from the free throw line, Dixon, with 11 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks, and Mondy, who played his best game as a Friar, with 10 points in 25 minutes. PC's depth added to the win. "We were able to play so many guys," said Davis. "I felt we were the fresher team in the last ten minutes, had the fresher legs."
This game was not won by offense, though. This game was won with defense and rebounding, and that's a hopeful formula for future success this season. Although UConn is a team that plays into Providence's hands by not shooting well, if PC plays with the same effort and intensity and continues to challenge shots, the Friars will be tough to handle. The first opportunity to see if this play continues comes on Saturday, when PC travels to Cincinnati for a 8:00 game.
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