Justin Minaya and PC couldn’t get to the hoop most of the night in loss to Creighton (Photo: Louriann Mardo-Zayat)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
NEW YORK – Where exactly did that come from?
With all the trappings of a great Big East evening in place at a sold out Madison Square Garden Friday night, the Providence Friars laid an egg. A really stinky, rotten egg.
A 29-2 run between the 6:41 mark of the first half and too much of the second turned this Big East semifinal upside down with Creighton running off to a shocking 85-58 rout of the Friars. Just two weeks earlier, the Friars danced all over the Jays, 72-51, as they won the Big East regular season crown at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
PC will carry a 25-5 record into next week’s NCAA Tournament and they’ll need to do their best to flush any vestige of this defeat from their collective psyches.
“Something caught us and I thought their energy was tough. I thought we pressed and it just snowballed and snowballed,” said coach Ed Cooley. “I thought we were pressing and we didn’t play well. Call it what it is. They played well and we didn’t. And they were a big reason why.”
This game began as predicted, both teams going at each other with solid, even effort by both sides. Al Durham sparked the Friars early and scored 15 of his team-high 21 in the opening half but that could only get the Friars into a 25-25 tie with 6:41 to play.
Yet somehow, someway, the Friars shut down. The Friars offense went stone cold, making just one of the final 12 shots in a disastrous finish to the half. The star for the Jays in a 17-2 run to the halftime horn was freshman Arthur Kaluma. The burly forward knocked in five shots, scoring inside and out, and finished the half with 15 points.
“A very, very good player,” Cooley said of Kaluma, who came in averaging 9.5 points and finished with 17. “We missed some shots, missed layups. We missed a couple of wide-open shots that we’ve been making, and then we pressed. It was a big turnover, he had just made a basket. Then it was a turnover, then he made a 3. How about the confidence of that young man to shoot that? It goes to tell you the job and the confidence that Greg (McDermott) instills in his players. So it’s a credit to him. I still think we’re at 25 points, and it’s an hour after the game.
The Friars trailed 42-27 at the half and the final 6:41 ballooned all the bad statistics. The Friars ended the half shooting 28 percent from the field and just 16 percent (2-12) from downtown. Creighton made 51 percent of its shots.
That was clearly disappointing but a 15-point deficit at halftime isn’t the end of the world. But what unfolded over the first five minutes of the second half certainly marked the end of PC’s trip to New York. Creighton came out locked in its defense was so good the Friars managed shot clock violations on its first two possessions. At the other end, the Jays were getting layups and dunks and Cooley responded by burning two timeouts in succession and before you knew it the Jays had scored 14 unanswered points and were cruising with a 56-27 lead.
PC’s first field goal of the second half didn’t come until the 12:37 mark. His driving score made it a 60-33 game and by then it was time to leave, or at least grab another $15 cocktail.
“We picked a bad time to play bad in a great arena. Unbelievable crowd,” Cooley said. “Unfortunately we didn’t have an opportunity to coach today. So I am very, very proud of our team. I told them you can’t just look at this game. And we can be upset, we can be hurt, we can be mad. But our job is to respond.”
Over the next six days it’s Cooley’s job to make sure none of this game carries over into the Friars’ much-anticipated NCAA star turn. PC is looked at a likely 4 or 5 seed in the tourney and avoiding any mental blues from a game like this is vital. So are several days of practice where PC’s offensive woes in two Big East tourney games were glaring with the offense grinding backwards at a 33 percent clip and just 18 percent (9-49) from the 3-point line.
“Hopefully our body of work throughout – I don’t want our (NCAA) seeding to be impacted on one game, you know what I mean? I don’t know what the committee thinks. That’s not
my job. I try not to worry about stuff I can’t control,” Cooley said. “My job right now is to make sure our players know we’re a hell of a team. We didn’t play well. We have great players and I want us to know we can win our next game regardless of who the opponent is.”