PROVIDENCE – In preparation for Tuesday’s game against the Jim Calhoun-less UConn Huskies, Ed Cooley took his club to the movies. The screening didn’t include popcorn and soda, rather visual evidence to demonstrate just how far Cooley’s PC Friars have come from a mediocre showing in an exhibition game to this past weekend’s last-second escape job at DePaul.
The message from the coach: “I told the team prior to our walkthrough that we’ve come a long way as a program. Against Assumption, we were immature. In our last game against DePaul, our execution, our precision down the stretch, paying attention to detail … it might not reflect in our record but I think our program grew from Assumption to DePaul.”
All the key points Cooley highlighted were on full display in Providence pulling the wool over Connecticut’s eyes. The Friars took a dry eraser to a 14-point second-half deficit to score a 72-70 win that featured flawless execution down the stretch. Well, almost as Bilal Dixon saw his 1-and-1 bid roll around the rim before popping out with 6.3 seconds remaining. At that point the Friars were up 72-69.
After each side called a timeout, the Huskies inbounded the ball into the hands of Shabazz Napier, who was fouled at midcourt by Bryce Cotton with now 3.5 ticks left. Napier knocked down the first free throw, which promptly led to another timeout. Whether it was by design or not, Napier’s second attempt did not stick.
The ball was live for what might have felt like an eternity to everyone in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Eventually Providence’s Gerard Coleman got his paws on the orange sphere, falling to the ground as the final horn sounded. The Friars had secured the upset victory – one that may have dealt the Huskies a serious blow in their quest to defend their national title in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
As usual Cooley rode the backs of his Core Four. LaDontae Henton (18 points before fouling out with 36.2 left) added to his reputation as Mr. Big Shot, knocking down a 3-pointer with just one second showing on the shot clock and 1:01 on the game clock. The trey, which came off an inbounds play in which Vincent Council was the throw-in guy, put PC up 69-61.
“That’s all you need,” said Cooley, noting that the play he called was named “quick.”
“He popped out and I threw it to him,” was the summary offered by Council, who even on a rough night shooting the ball – 4-for-15 that translated into nine points – was still able to impact the game with 11 assists.
Many a Council toss went in the direction of Cotton. The sophomore nearly single-handily brought the Friars back from the dead, knocking down three 3s in a three-minute window that helped PC tie UConn at 54-all at 7:54 of the second half. Cotton’s pinpoint accuracy was reflective in his 5-of-9 display from downtown on his way to registering a 22-point night.
Coleman rounded out PC’s much relied upon quartet with 13 points and seven rebounds. The Friars outscored their New England counterparts by a 41-25 count after trailing 51-37 with 12:30 left. UConn began the second half with nine straight points to open up a lead that associate head coach George Blaney thought was safe. It turns out that the gap wasn’t nearly wide enough.
“I thought we were in total control of the game,” offered Blaney after UConn lost for ninth time in 12 tries. “We did a lot of bad things from that point on.”
It seemed that all the numbers favored the Huskies when the game tipped off. Andre Drummond (14 points) was catching and dunking the ball with 6-foot-9 sidekick Alex Oriakhi also making good use of his height. UConn’s length – early on the Huskies had 6-foot-5 Jeremy Lamb on Cotton, who as Cooley noted might be six feet on a good day, while the 6-foot-10 Drummond shadowed Henton – helped the visitors jump out to a 17-11 lead.
“Our zone wasn’t very good at the start,” Cooley said. “That’s why we manned up and went man-to-man.”
Eventually PC’s big men matched Drummond and Oriakhi as Kadeem Batts (13 rebounds) and Dixon helped the Friars win the rebounding battle, 41-37. Lost in the shuffle of the steady rain of threes Cotton provided was theater Batts and Oriakhi provided on a jump ball sequence at the 8:33 mark of the second stanza. The two players eventually fell to the floor in a scene that was more WWE than hoops. On the plus side, the Friars retained possession, resulting in Cotton’s fourth make from deep.
“We had to match their physicality with Bilal and Kadeem and I thought both did a great job,” Cooley said. “I thought we got our hands on a lot of balls and secured them.”
The Huskies (17-12 overall, 7-10 in the Big East) made it interesting in the final minute behind two threes from Lamb (12 points). The rally proved too little, too late as once the Friars seized control, they never once looked back.
RIM RATTLERS: From the “read into this what you will” department, Dixon was honored prior to the game as part of the annual Senior Night pomp and circumstance. Technically he’s a senior who’s on target to graduate in May. Officially he’s listed as a redshirt junior, meaning the New Jersey native has an additional season of eligibility. Afterwards Dixon showed his appreciation to the 11,031 paying customers by grabbing the mike of PA announcer Frank Carpano. He was forced to scream over a collection of delirious fans that were still looking to revel in the moment. … Among the notables in attendance were future Friar and Connecticut native Kris Dunn, Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and Celtics president Rich Gotham. … PC has now won three straight at The Dunk against UConn. Also, the Friars have now captured two straight Big East wins, the first time that’s happened since 2010, beating Rutgers on Jan. 9 (94-81) and DePaul on Jan. 14 (79-62).