PROVIDENCE — Deep down, Ed Cooley has to know that the basketball gods have not completely forsaken his Providence College Friars.
While injuries continue to decimate Cooley’s already razor-thin core, PC somehow continues to avoid getting buried under an avalanche of excuses and naysayers proclaiming it’s impossible to play major college basketball with a depleted lineup. The fact that the Friars sport a 6-2 record following Saturday’s too-close-for-comfort 73-63 win over SEC foe Mississippi State reiterates the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of the group. When you look at the adversity that we have dealt with, it’s a credit to our players, coaching staff and medical staff,” stated Cooley. “I think we need to give (the team doctors and trainers) a raise based on what we’ve been through.”
Bryce Cotton became the latest casualty of PC’s walking wounded, the team’s leading scorer exiting with 3:54 left in the first half and nine points under his belt. Originally the injury was described as an ankle injury first suffered a couple weeks ago in Puerto Rico, but afterwards Cooley confirmed that Cotton injured his knee.
Cotton officially left the Dunkin’ Donuts Center early in the second half, heading to Fatima Hospital to undergo a MRI that revealed no structural damage. Wishing to keep his players focused on the task at hand, Cooley didn’t have Cotton sit in the locker room during halftime.
Without Cotton, the MASH unit that is Providence took the floor in the second half with two guards among the six healthy and available bodies. The good news was that up until that point, Mississippi State proved to be the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The Bulldogs limped off the floor trailing 39-21 after hitting 5-of-26 field-goal attempts for 19 percent. The woeful mark includes a cover-your-eyes 0-of-13 showing from the 3-point stripe.
Over the final 20 minutes, the Friars nearly relinquished the sizable advantage they had built. PC led 61-35 with 10:54 to play but hobbled to the final buzzer. Trailing 66-47 with 5:13 remaining, Mississippi State ripped off 13 straight points to close to within five (68-63) with 46.9 ticks remaining. The Bulldogs’ sharp turnaround stemmed from a full-court trapping scheme that wasn’t unleashed until very late, which seemed sort of puzzling considering the Friars were down to only one adequate ball hander – freshman Josh Fortune, who logged 40 minutes.
“Thankfully Josh gained experience at running the point in Puerto Rico when Cotton rolled his ankle,” said PC junior Ted Bancroft about Fortune, who distributed seven assists but turned the ball over five times. “Coach did a great job getting Josh into a position where he can still play off the ball.”
Mississippi State looked to move closer when Roquez Johnson stepped to the free-throw line with 35.5 seconds showing on the clock, but the sophomore missed both. The pressure then shifted over to PC with Kadeem Batts stepped to the charity stripe for a 1-and-1 opportunity with 29.3 seconds left. The junior calmly swished both to cap off a day that saw him net a career-best 32 points.
“Kadeem was a lottery pick today. He had an incredible presence on the floor, a demanding presence,” Cooley proudly remarked. “He was great in the huddle, great in the locker room.”
A turnover by Mississippi State sent PC’s LaDontae Henton to the line with a chance to make Cooley and the 6,156 fans breathe a little easier. Just like Batts, Henton was on target on both tries on his way to an effective 18-point outing.
“We were definitely in survival mode, but we did a great job staying together,” said Batts.
Fortune and Bancroft, who with each passing game is being viewed less and less as strictly a walk-on, did not come off the floor once during the second half. While the pair combined to shoot 4-of-18, they worked in unison as the first line of defense in PC’s 2-3 zone.
“We’re both getting deflections and the team builds off that energy,” said Bancroft.
Added Cooley, “I don’t know if anybody in the country can do what we’ve done over the past eight weeks, to persevere through everything we’ve been through. It’s a great win under the circumstances and I’m very proud of the group.”
RIM RATTLERS: When asked if freshman Kris Dunn (shoulder) could have been called upon to play his first PC game Saturday, Cooley responded, “He’s not ready to go yet. I’m not going to jeopardize somebody’s career for one game. That young man has a bright future ahead of him; if he’s ready to play the next game, great. If not, we’ll play the guys available.” … Saturday’s game was part of the SEC-Big East Challenge. The Big East wound up winning the 12-game series, 9-3. … Saturday was just the second time that PC lost the rebounding battle. Mississippi State ended up prevailing by a 38-36 count. … Next up for the Friars is the annual intrastate showdown with URI, which will take place this Thursday night in Providence. Said Batts. “It’s going to be a high energy game against our rival.”