The Providence College Friars gave it everything they had, but in the end, they came up just short. A three-point attempt by LaDontae Henton at the buzzer, which would have sent the game into a third overtime, bounced off the rim and gave Villanova an 82-79 victory before 12,106 fans at the Dunkin' Donuts Center on Tuesday night.
The No. 9-ranked Wildcats, who dusted the Friars by a score of 91-61 in Philadelphia on Jan. 5, had just pounded Creighton by 19 points. But the difference between these Friars and the ones 'Nova first clobbered is like night and day. Back then, the Friars had just come off two tough overtime losses at UMass, and at home to Seton Hall. (The Seton Hall game was particularly vexing, lasting two overtimes.) But right after that loss to the Pirates, the Friars went on a roll, winning six of their next seven games, and getting themselves back into postseason chatter.
Indeed, a win last night would have lifted the Friars off the bubble. Instead, it created a long, hard road to get back to The Dance.
Keep in mind that this Big East is nothing like the old Big East, were six, seven or eight teams would routinely receive NCAA bids. This year, several of the top teams—Connecticut, Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Cincinnati—bolted the top college basketball country in the country (perhaps the best in college basketball history) for other football-centric conferences.
This year, which a much shorter list, the Big East returned to its roots, as a basketball conference first. And yet, because of the loss of so many big programs, it would be unrealistic to expect the Big East to receive more than four bids—five tops—to the NCAA Tournament. Tuesday's loss dropped the Friars into sixth place—one game behind St. John's, winners of its last six games.
On Tuesday, Bryce Cotton led all scorers with 22 points. Perhaps none were more important that a crazy, twisting drive under the hoop before flipping the ball over his shoulder and into the hole—which sent the game into the second overtime. Cotton also contributed with nine assists. But he was just 6-for-20 (30 percent) from the floor. Kadeem Batts and Tyler Harris both chipped in with double-doubles (21 points, 11 rebounds for Batts; 15 points, 12 boards for Harris). Josh Fortune poured in 16 for the Friars.
Ryan Arcadiacono led Villanova (22-2 overall, 11-2 in the Big East) with 21 points, including a traditional three-point play—a layup in which he was fouled by Batts, and a converted free-throw—with three seconds remaining in the second overtime. Still, the Friars were able to get off a Hail Mary—a shot by Henton from midcourt—that bounced off the rim. JayVaughn Pinkston added 20 points for 'Nova—mostly from in the paint—including two huge baskets in the second overtime. In all, five Wildcats scored in double-digits.
“That’s what the Big East is all about,” said a relieved Villanova head coach Jay Wright after the game.“A great college basketball game. Great fans, great building, great atmosphere.”
With the Friars short-handed, the bench did very little in terms of contribution last night. Perhaps most disconcerting was the “play” of Carson Desrosiers, the Friars' 7-0 big man, who managed no points and just two boards in 17 minutes. Indeed, not one point was scored off the Providence bench. And while Villanova wasn't much better in that department (just two points off the bench from Josh Hart), the Friars' subs are going to have to improve dramatically—particularly getting some solid minutes out of Desrosiers—if they have any realistic expectations of reaching the tournament.
While it's not over for the Friars, who fall to 17-10 (7-7 in Big East play), the challenge is now daunting. Three of Providence's next four games are on the road, where the Friars are 2-5. Indeed, if the Friars hope to be invited to The Dance, they will almost have to either win out from this point forward, or win the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Neither, frankly, seems likely.
“There are still four more opportunities for us to live our dream this year,” said a still-upbeat Friar head coach Ed Cooley.
The first of which happens on Sunday in Indianapolis, where Providence will take on last place Butler (12-14 overall, 2-12 Big East). Tip-off is at 6 p.m., and the game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.