No COVID pauses or fan bans are in place tonight when Dan Hurley & UConn come to town
By KEVIN McNAMARA
If Dan Hurley isn’t a fan of Federal Hill’s finest Italian restaurants or a little coffee shop on the East Side he should be forgiven.
It’s not that the Jersey boy doesn’t like his veal parmigiana or a nice cup of cappuccino. It has more to do with his passion, his life as a basketball coach. He’s taken his teams to Providence four times and come up empty. Three of those games came with the Rhode Island Rams at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, now the Amica Mutual Pavilion. The fourth came with his current wagon, the Connecticut Huskies, but up on Providence College’s campus due to the pandemic season of 2020-21.
So Hurley is 0-4 in Providence and just 2-7 against the Friars during his time at URI and UConn. Those aren’t Hurley-type numbers and he’s certainly hoping things can turn around starting with Wednesday’s visit to the AMP. This is easily Hurley’s best-ever team as the 14-1 Huskies, now No. 4 in the Top 25, own legitimate national championship hopes.
“My first couple of years (at URI), I didn’t go there with very good teams. So, this is the best team I’m going there with,” Hurley told reporters in Connecticut earlier this week. “I’m hoping to have more success than I had there early on at Rhody.”
That’s one of several juicy storylines as Connecticut comes to play in front of Providence fans for the first time since the Huskies rejoined the Big East three seasons ago. Hurley isn’t welcomed to many opposing arenas but the invective likely to be hurled his way on this night will be extra spicy. He won few friends during his time at Rhody, after all. PC fans don’t like any Ram coach, no matter his stripes. The fact that Hurley turned URI into a power and two-time NCAA Tournament participant didn’t help matters.
Now at UConn Hurley has done the same, in spades. He turned the Huskies into the Big East’s favorites at this point of the season thanks to a dominating defense, a lineup with pro size and a delicious mix of offensive talents like shooter Jordan Hawkins, bruising big man Adama Sanogo and versatile wing Andre Jackson.
The Hurley vs. Cooley/Providence matchups have really unfolded in three distinct eras. His six turns through the URI/PC squeegee owned very different feels. Out of the gate in Hurley’s first three seasons his rebuild was a deep one and two of the three games came in Providence at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The one trip to the Ryan Center (12-5-13) provided an extreme test, however, and a very memorable nose-to-nose moment.
The game ended with Providence winning, 50-49, but only after freshman E.C. Matthews air-balled a difficult, fall-away jumper on the game’s final possession. Earlier in the tight, heated affair, Cooley and Hurley spilled out onto the floor as a break in play began and the two coaches needed to be restrained as they screamed at each other and received technical fouls. Cooler heads prevailed somewhat quickly and they met at midcourt and shook hands.
That URI team was led by Gilvydas Biruta and Xavier Minford, two good players and transfer pickups but the surrounding cast was just falling into place.
The final three Hurley vs. Cooley matchups were high-level hoops. In two of the three years both the Rams and Friars advanced to the NCAA Tournament and could play with most everyone in the country. That made the atmosphere truly electric, but placed even more juice on the Rams as this was their opportunity to break thro0ugh and knock off the Friars on equal footing.
Two of those three games took place at the Ryan Center, the first coming Dec. 5, 2015. That one went back and forth as URI carried the play for long stretches behind Hassan Martin, Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett. Matthews, Hurley’s prime recruit, had suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks earlier in the first game of the year.
The Friars came in nationally ranked (No. 23) as budding All-American Kris Dunn and on-the-rise sophomore Ben Bentil had combined to post wins over Illinois and No. 11 Arizona out of the gate. At the Ryan Center, Dunn was good (15 points, 5 assists) but his six turnovers helped Rhody stick around. The game was tied at 70-70 when Bentil scored after a wild loose ball play but Terrell hit a jumper with seven seconds left to tie. Dunn raced down the court, drove to the rim but as his layup rolled off the burly Bentil rose to the rim and tipped in the winner at the buzzer to give the 23rd ranked Friars a 74-72 victory.
The best team Hurley ever brought downtown was the 2016-17 group that eventually cracked the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Creighton in a first round win. But on Dec. 3, 2016 the Rams came in ranked 21st in the country and ready to snap a six-game losing streak to the hated Friars. But winning downtown has never been easy and PC’s defense limited the Rams to 37 percent shooting, just 27 percent from the 3-point line. That wiped out a 35-29 Ram halftime lead as the Friars forged ahead in the final three minutes, received a key Jalen Lindsey jumper and some Kyron Cartwright free throws in the final minute and held off the Rams for a 63-60 win.
The final game of the triumvirate finally went URI’s way on Dec. 2, 2017. By this point Hurley had all the pieces in place with the veteran might of Terrell and Garrett, rising star guard Jeff Dowtin and a tiny freshman whippet named Fatts Russell. The Rams flew out of the gate at the Ryan Center and rode 14 first half point by Russell to a solid 42-31 halftime lead. Alpha Diallo and reserves Nate Watson and Makai Ashton-Langford sparked a Providence push that cut the deficit to three points in the last five minutes but the Friars couldn’t get any closer than 67-64 and ultimately lost, 75-68.
That first Hurley win over Providence would also be his final one as Rhode Island’s coach. After the Rams fought past Trae Young and Oklahoma for an overtime win in the NCAA’s, a 25-point loss to Duke ended URI’s 26-8 season and Hurley’s time in Kingston.
The move to Connecticut began with two seasons in the American Athletic Conference but by the time UConn came home to the Big East for the 2020-21 campaign, Hurley had the program pointed in the right direction. That was the pandemic season, however, so when UConn drove Route 6 to Providence on Feb. 10, 2021 the destination was Alumni Hall and not the Dunk. Hurley’s star, James Bouknight, was injured and Tyrese Martin, R.J. Cole and freshman big Adama Sanogo didn’t have enough to hold back David Duke and Nate Watson in a 70-59 Providence win.
UConn won the rematch a week later at a vacant Gampel Pavilion, 73-61, as Bouknight and Martin scored 18 points apiece.
Last December the two teams played at the Hartford Civic Center and Providence again got the best of Hurley’s Huskies. A.J. Reeves (16 points, 4 threes) was one of the few players who could make a shot as the Friars gutted out a 57-53 win. UConn’s return trip to Providence scheduled for Jan. 15 never took place due to the a Covid pause that cost the Friars three games.
Now there are no Covid breaks, no crowd bans to fret over. Instead it’s a matchup of two high end Big East teams with all sorts of buzz and fun along for the ride.