By KEVIN McNAMARA
PROVIDENCE – The trappings of a Big Game were everywhere at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Tuesday night.
Providence College’s students, thousands of them, flocked downtown by 3 p.m. (Class, what class??) and poured into the Dunk like the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona at 5:30. Two and a half hours later the game finally tipped off, and by then a Pink Out crowd of 12,630 was rocking the old building.
Yet for the first time this season, the hometown Friars couldn’t close a tight game. Down by just two points with 50 seconds left, the Friars made the last of a bushel-full of defensive errors and allowed Collin Gillespie to shake free and do what All-Americans do: make Big Time shots.
“That was the dagger right there – Game, Set, Match,” said PC coach Ed Cooley.
Why would A.J. Reeves follow Jermaine Samuels and not stick with his man? Why would Noah Horchler not jump to the ball with more aggression?
No need to single out any single PC defneder because they all got smoked in a 89-84 loss to No. 10 Villanova. The Friars allowed as season-high in points, saw ‘Nova pour in 11 threes and generally make what has been a pretty stiff defense look like nothing.
“I was very surprised at my team’s execution in the last five minutes of the game,” Cooley said. “I thought we made eight mistakes and the biggest mistake was on me. With a minute to play I wanted the energy of the crowd on a press in a one possession game. That’s on me. This loss is definitely on me with respect to that time and score. Just play man-to-man and ride it out that way.”
To Cooley’s credit he also admitted he may have mistakenly left Justin Minaya on the bench for that final sequence. Minaya on Gillespie – and not Reeves – was clearly the move but Cooley didn’t substitute when Gillespie was draining two free throws with 55 seconds left.
Gillespie’s dagger capped a career night for the ‘Nova star as he poured in a career high 33 points, 23 in the second half. He swished five 3-pointers and basically toyed with PC’s defensive plans when he was either making jumpers or operating in the post. In the first half, Justin Moore took his star turn. The junior guard dropped 18 of his 19 points in the opening 20 minutes with four treys.
Villanova improves to 20-6 overall and 13-3 in the Big East. It needed the win badly to deny the Friars (21-3, 11-2) a clear path to the conference regular season crown.
The disappointment of not winning this one was clearly felt not only by Cooley and his players but the raucous crowd. Cooley knows the fans will return when the Friars host Xavier next Wednesday.
Nate Watson led the Friars with 20 points and 6 rebounds. Jared Bynum tossed in 18 points, but got caught in bad defensive switches much too often. Reeves caught fire in the second half and scored 11 of his 16 points.
Villanova led 73-66 with 5:46 left before the Friars made their customary push. Al Durham, just 1-of-9 shooting to that point, hit a difficult follow of his own miss while getting fouled. His free throw made it 73-70 and another Durham layup plus a Bynum free throw cut it to 75-73 with 3:43 remaining.
That two-point deficit re-appeared for the Friars in the final minute as well. A Nate Watson three-point play with 1:43 made it 78-76 but ‘Nova kept answering. This time the easy press break that Cooley admitted to led to an Eric Dixon layup. After a tough Durham shot, Gillespie drew a foul and made two shots to make it 82-78 with 55 seconds left.
Durham scored again on a quick end-to-end score to make it 82-80 but that’s when Gillespie turned Reeves and Horchler inside out and drained the game’s key shot.
Gillespie has taken – and made – so many tough shots over his five years at Villanova that he casually, almost matter-of-fact, knew how to execute, saying “I was just going to make the right play. They both ended up going with Jermaine so I had the open shot so I had to take it.”
The Friars wiped out their slow start where they fell behind 13-6 by clawing back and grabbing a 25-24 lead on an Ed Croswell offensive rebound. But PC couldn’t make anything stick. The team’s defense saw Nova grab a 46-39 lead at the half on 53 percent shooting.
The Friars will take a day off the regroup and then keep fighting for their first-ever Big East title. They remain slightly ahead of the Wildcats but can’t afford another loss. PC plays at Butler Sunday and then return home to face Xavier and Creighton. If these two teams don’t lose again, they’ll meet March 1 in Philadelphia for the regular season crown. The teams will play an uneven number of conference games so the ultimate crown will be decided by winning percentage.
“I think we’re still in first place,” Cooley said. “We have to try to bounce back. I think we’re a very good basketball team. I think we have some very good players, we just didn’t execute how we wanted to play today. Sometimes life sucks.”