The victory kept alive the Friars' NCAA hopes and forced West Virginia, losers of three of its last five, to split its final two games to enhance its tournament chances.
WVU (20-7, 8-6 Big East), looking for its first road win over a league team with a winning record, controlled the latter parts of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half in building a 39-32 lead with 14:41 left in the game. But it went cold from behind the arc and missed 32 of 41 3-pointers overall, including the last six and four in the final minute. That allowed Providence to rally and hold on; It used 11 points by Brian McKenzie and Jonathan Kale in a 13-2 run that gave it a 45-42 lead with 9:38 left. The Friars (17-9, 7-6) trailed just once more before Weyinmi Efejuku hit two huge 3-pointers, part of his game-high 24 points, that allowed PC to build a six-point lead. The latter one came with 5:44 left and finished a 22-9 run that led to 54-48 advantage.
West Virginia got as closer as 62-61 on two Da'Sean Butler free throws with 9.1 seconds left, but then lost contain of Hill as it tried to foul to setup a last-second chance. Hill's dunk, the last of his 12 points, came with 4.1 seconds left and Nichols tried a despiration three from halfcourt as the buzzer expired. Nichols and Frank Young, who made just four of 12 3-pointers and missed two in a key exchange late, led WVU with 14 points each. Joe Alexander finished with 11 but had problems controlling the ball early.
It was a microcosm of the game for West Virginia. It limited forwards Geoff McDermott and Jonathan Kale, the two players it thought could beat it, only to have Efejuku make four of seven 3-pointers, beating WVU – the Big East leader in threes per game – at its own game. The Mountaineers had several defensive lapses inside and hit just 23.1 from behind the arc, part of 24 of 64 overall shooting (37.5 percent). That wasn't enough against a surging Providence team that has won five of its last nine and had its last two losses decided by fewer than 10 points.
"Give Providence credit; they hung in there," West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. "I don't think they played their best game either, but we are better than what we played, especially defensively. It just didn't fall. We made some bad decisions and we'll have to learn from it."
Hopefully soon. Providence moved a half game behind West Virginia, in sixth place, with three games left. WVU has just two games remaining, against No. 8 Pitt, which hung the lone home loss on the Mountaineers this year, and Cincinnati, a team that handed West Virginia its worst loss this year, and it appears any chances at a first round Big East Tournament bye via a top four finish are gone. The Mountaineers, squarely on the NCAA bubble, need a win in one of the last two games, plus perhaps a postseason victory, to ensure their third consecutive NCAA bid. A win over PC would have made the task much easier.
"We are better than that," Beilein said. "A lot of people have come in here and had troubles and not played them as closely as we did. But in this one, I don't think we were ever in control of the game. We gave them some easy ones we should not have."
West Virginia actually led 30-25 at the break off the strength of excellent transition defense and defensive rebounding, something it would later abandon. Providence failed to get runout points and after taking a 24-23 lead – its last in a half that had seven lead changes and four ties – WVU smothered it for the final 3:28. That defensive shutdown translated into better looks from the other end as the Mountaineers scored seven of the final eight points of the opening period. PC shot just 30 percent overall, and missed eight of 10 from behind the arc in the face of West Virginia's Big East-best 3-point field goal percentage defense.
Providence's initial 19-13 lead came largely from its interior play, as nine of the points were scored or setup by passes into the paint. The Friars, however, had just five points in as many minutes to begin the game as West Virginia used its man and 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone sets within in the first four minutes. Alexander erased the six-point deficit with 3-pointers on consecutive WVU possessions and Summers and Young added lay-ups to tie the score at 23-23 with 3:46 left before the half before the late Mountaineer run.
But Providence began moving more fluidly through its offense and attacked better in the second half. After Jamie Smalligan's dunk inside for the 39-32 WVU lead, the Friars answered with a tip-in and putback by McKenzie and Kale's drive inside and resulting free throw. That game was suddenly tied at 39-39 with 13:21 left, and the Mountaineers compounded their defensive problems with rapid misfirings from the outside. They did not run through sets and seemed content to settle for outside jumpers. The result was a 3:19 scoring drought to start the 22-9 run keyed by Efejuku.
"It looked like we were on a playground in the first half," Providence head coach Tim Welsh said. "We were standing around. We started to play team basketball in the second half."
The loss was just the fifth in 25 games for West Virginia when Young makes more then three 3-pointers. It snapped a four-game series winning streak and allowed PC to win its third in the last 10 meetings. The Friars advanced to 16-2 at home this season, including 6-1 in the Big East. West Virginia fell to 3-5 in true road games and 8-5 in games away from the Coliseum; The Mountaineers do not have a road win over a team in the top 130 in the RPI rankings. They have a week off before facing Pitt on the road.