Al Durham and the Friars were held in check most of the game by Kansas
By KEVIN McNAMARA
CHICAGO – In the end so many of the truisms that defined this special run by the Providence Friars turned upside down.
This time, on this Sweet Sixteen stage, the Friars weren’t the team that closed best. This time the Friars weren’t the team that delivered with the game hanging in the balance. This time, here at the United Center against the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, the Friars ran out of gas.
The result was a 66-61 season-ending loss that will sting for awhile. The Jayhawks (31-6) were held in check offensively all night by a Providence defense that played tough and made everyone from All-American Ochai Agbaji (5 points, 2-of-8) to big man David McCormack (8 points) look oh-so-ordinary. But a horrendous first half shooting performance (20 percent) placed Providence behind the 8-ball and with the game hanging in the balance, Bill Self’s team executed. Jalen Wilson (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Remy Martin (game-high 23 points) made the biggest field goals and free throws as Kansas ground its way to the Elite Eight.
Kansas led by as many as 12 points in a first half where the Friars couldn’t have played worse offensively (1-of-13 from 3) and were pronounced all but dead by the Turner crew at the half. The KU lead peaked at 13 before Providence finally got things going and stormed all the way back to take a lead (48-47) and send the thousands of Friar fans into a tizzy.
But then order was restored. Wilson scored over Noah Horchler to regain the lead and then Martin sank a slew of free throws in the final 1:32 to ice the game.
“These guys all year have responded,” said a dejected Ed Cooley. “I’m not going to let our men’s heads be down. This was one hell of a season and we got beat by a great team, a really, really good team. So nothing to be ashamed of. I’m sad, I’m heart-broken but I’m not going to let this one loss define the type of season that we had.”
For the longest time it didn’t appear as if the Friars were going to give themselves a chance to storm to the lead. As Cooley said the excitement of the stage unsettled both teams out of the gate and his team never settled in offensively over the first 20 minutes. Kansas, of course, had almost everything to do with that.
“I thought our players had to adjust with the physicality on and off the ball,” Cooley said. “We’re accustomed to playing against that level of defense when we play a team like Villanova but I thought we made the right adjustment.”
The first few minutes, and the entire first half, were downright ugly on the offensive end for the Friars. The opening minutes were marked by hurried, rushed action without any sense of tempo. Providence fell into a quick 11-4 hole and the offense kept missing. For a time the Jayhawks had more blocked shots than PC had buckets and the half ended with Kansas blocking as many shots as the Friars made (7).
Unfortunately for the Friars those trends never waned. PC would open 3-of-16 from the floor, fall behind 22-10 and end the half down 26-17. The Friars shot an anemic 20 percent (7-35 FG) and made just one of their 13 three-point tries. To only be behind by nine points was a minor miracle but the PC defense proved productive, holding the Jayhawks to 35 percent shooting. If not for reserve guard Martin (13 points, 6-9 FG), Kansas couldn’t get much going.
Providence fell behind 36-23 early in the second half before some extensive, impressive offensive board work gave the Friars some life. Ed Croswell did the honors, scoring inside three times right at the rim and lighting the spark the Friars needed. The Friars kept charging with Al Durham finally shaking free and getting to the rim and when Noah Horchler banged in a 3-pointer for PC’s second trey of the game, the Friars were down by just 41-40.
“I like the adjustments the staff made at halftime,” Cooley said. “Sometimes you have to get lucky, you need a call here, you need a basket there, you need a bounce here.”
The Friars wouldn’t take no for an answer and actually grabbed a lead, 48-47, with 5:49 left on a Horchler layup. But that lead lasted a mere 28 seconds. Wilson powered over Horchler for a hoop and foul. Horchler missed a 3-pointer at the other end and this time Christian Braun took his man and drove for a layup. Durham lost the ball near midcourt for a costly turnover and this time McCormack scored and Kansas was back in control, 54-48. An alley-oop to Agbaji capped a 10-2 answer to the Friars taking the lead.
“I think our guys have enough individual confidence that when things don’t go well as a team they think that they can go make an individual play,” said KU coach Bill Self. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but tonight it did.”
The Friars had a tight window on a comeback in the final 2:30 but could not make the defining plays. Durham tried to draw a foul on a drive but didn’t get a call. Justin Minaya missed an open 3-pointer and instead of clawing for the clutch steal, the Friars had no choice to foul Martin and he drained his free throws.
PC had famously touted its ability to win close games but with the loss the Friars fell to 11-3 in games decided by five points or less.
This team will certainly leave a memorable legacy. It was the surprise of it all, the team picked seventh in November that stormed to a Big East regular season crown. So many memorable finishes and nights at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center will certainly remain stained in Friar fans’ hearts. A 27-6 finish will be celebrated for many years on Eaton Street.
“I thought we played our hardest right to the end,” Cooley said. “I couldn’t be more proud. I hurt for our seniors. I’m very sad for my seniors. But at the same time I have an enormous amount of gratitude for the year that we’ve had. We can’t let this one loss define the special season that this special group had.”