PROVIDENCE — To Ed Cooley, what’s one more stern test for his Providence Friars before powering down for a 10-day exam period?
Pushed and pressured all day long by a 1-9 Bryant outfit that wasn’t supposed to pose that big of a threat, Cooley’s Friars overcame 34 minutes of “listless” basketball to fight tooth-and-nail over the final six minutes, a stretch which wound up serving as the difference Saturday afternoon at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
In the end, the Friars prevailed by a 72-61 count, but it was far from an easy win.
Afterwards Cooley admitted he had a premonition the night before that Providence would experience turbulence on its way to heading into exams with its ninth win in 11 tries. The Bulldogs did little to ease the fears of first-year PC head coach as Bryant led 30-29 lead into halftime before extending the advantage to as many as eight points early in the second half.
If Bryant had been able to execute on offense a little better down the stretch, Tim O’Shea’s crew may have sprung a big upset. The Bulldogs were still ahead as late as the four-minute mark, but that’s when the visitors from Smithfield went into a deep slumber. Bryant could only watch as Providence punched back with a 19-0 blitzing that took the Friars from the minus side of the ledger to up 68-56 after sophomore Gerard Coleman (13 points) nailed two free throws with 48 ticks left.
All told, Bryant went 6:16 between registering points, the drought ending when Frankie Dobbs hit a layup with 44 ticks left that made it 68-58. As well as O’Shea’s club played early on, his Bulldogs were merely spectators as the Friars made enough plays on both ends of the floor to survive.
“They (Bryant) came right out and punched us in the face for 34 minutes. Today we played for six minutes,” Cooley said. “I’m proud of our guys. I think it’s a character win, but if we show up like that on a daily basis, we’re in for a long season.”
PC picked up its fifth straight win to improve to 7-0 at home. Sophomore Bryce Cotton was the savior on a day the Friars received an awful shooting (3-of-14) effort from leading scorer Vincent Council, whose eight points were secondary to the seven assists he dished out.
Cotton tallied a career-best 34 points, the most scored by a single Friar player this season. The guard, who always has the green light from Cooley to fire away, had 20 of PC’s 29 points at halftime and continued to shoulder the scoring burden well into the second half. Freshman LaDontae Henton notched the second double-double of his young career, popping for 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“Bryce became Superman for a minute,” noted Cooley. “We run a lot of different things to get him looks all over the floor. Today was one of those days he could have had 50. He just didn’t take enough shots.”
Alex Francis carried Bryant on his way to finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds. The burly sophomore from Harlem, N.Y. was the only Bulldog to attempt a free throw (six trips with three makes). Conversely the Friars as a unit went to the charity stripe 24 times, making 22.
“That type of differential makes it almost impossible for a team to get a win,” said O’Shea, who was clearly bothered by the lack of calls Bryant received.
Bryant got PC’s attention courtesy of a 15-4 run that gave the Bulldogs a 23-17 lead with five minutes left before halftime. The Friars, who hit two of their first 10 shots to start the game, regrouped to go ahead by one before Bryant’s Dan Calandrillo (12 points) hit a floater inside 10 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs the lead at recess.
The start of the second half saw Bryant pin Providence in a 39-31 hole before the Friars fought back to tie the game at 44-apiece at 12:23. Francis quickly snapped the deadlock, scoring six straight points to put the Bulldogs back in front, 54-49.
It was all PC the rest of the way. A Council steal at midcourt resulted in a layup that put the Friars up for good, 57-56. A miss from close range by Bryant’s Dobbs (12 points) saw the Friars convert on the other end with Cotton taking the feed from Council and drilling a 3-pointer from the corner. That put Providence up 60-56 with 2:51 remaining.
Bryant’s offensive slumber consisted of 10 straight misses, one of which came when Francis went up for a dunk before getting turned away in such a fashion that had O’Shea plenty mad while standing outside Bryant’s locker.
“I hope I don’t get in trouble, but I was disappointed [in the officiating]. (Francis) got killed a couple of times and he doesn’t get any free throws,” said O’Shea, who like Cooley was an assistant coach at Boston College under Al Skinner.
As Cooley noted, the exam period comes at a most opportune time for the Friars.
“If you would have told us back on March 22 [the day Cooley was hired] that we’d be 9-2 regardless of who we've played, I would have kissed everyone on the lips,” Cooley said. “We got to the finish line with what we need. Hopefully we can get our academics in order along with some rest.”