A season that saw them soar to unimaginable heights came to a bitter sweet end for Providence College on Friday night as sixth-seeded North Carolina squeezed past the Friars, 79-77, at the AT&T Center in San Antonio in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
It was the Friars first appearance at The Dance since 2004. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have not lost a first-round game since Bill Clinton was President. (I know, I know... This was a "second round" game for some inane reason.)
And what an appearance it was.
Bryce Cotton, who very well might have been the tournament's Most Outstanding Player had the Providence bench been two or three more players deep, scored a career-high 36 points. The Big East's best player not named “McDermott” (and there can be a solid case made that Cotton is, indeed, the better overall player) dazzled fans and foes alike with one amazing shot after another—including a signature twisting left-to-right under-the-basket layup late in the second half.
But Cotton also had the key turnover—a botched rebound off a missed free throw by Carolina's James McAdoo that was Cotton fumbled out of bounds with just 3.5 seconds left in regulation—which might be considered poetic justice, since before that play, Cotton was virtually perfect.
And while it was just one of three turnovers made by Cotton—an amazing stat in and of itself when you consider that Cotton was the Friars' point guard, meaning the entire offense came through his hands, and that he was putting in his signature 40 minutes—this one hurt.
It sealed the deal for the Tar Heels.
“It wasn’t enough,” said Cotton after the game. “I definitely left it all out on the floor like the rest of my teammates. But it obviously wasn’t enough because we didn’t come up with the win.”
“Bryce Cotton played one of the best games I’ve ever had anybody play against us,” countered Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, also known by Craig Sager, TNT's court-side Rhinestone Cowboy, as Roy Smith. “He was truly dominating the game.”
In the end, the Friars were simply not able to compete with the bigger, stronger, and far deeper Tar Heels in the paint and off the glass. Carolina, which sent in wave after wave of fresh, athletic big men throughout the contest, out-rebounded PC by a 40-26 margin, including a brutal 12-rebound advantage—21-9—off the offensive glass.
Despite that jarring statistic, the Friars were able to hang in until the very, very end. Actually, the Friars somehow came back from a nine-point deficit to take a seven-point lead, 71-64, with just 4:36 left in regulation.
To use an overused basketball cliché, the game was theirs to lose.
And that's precisely what they did.
The Friars took just one shot in the next two minutes—turning the ball over once and committing a foul which, of course, stopped the clock for the Tar Heels, who came back to tie the game, 71-71, over that period. But just then, UNC's Marcus Paige committed perhaps the dumbest foul this reporter has seen since he was the starting shooting guard for the San Juan Tortillas in the St. Bernard's High Intramural League.
Paige, who was led the Carolina offense with 19 points, said that the game was “fun... because we won.” But then he did everything in his power for that not to happen when he fouled Cotton, an 85 percent foul shooter, from beyond the three-point arc.
Cotton calmly drilled in all three gimmes, and the Friars once again had breathing room—a three-point lead, 74-71, with 2:29 remaining.
Did I say 'breathing room?” Oops. Actually, in retrospect, the next stretch became the most “un-fun” two and a-half minutes of the Friars' season.
A traditional three-point play by North Carolina's J.P. Toko—a short jumper and a foul shot after he was touched in the act by Desrosiers—tied the game at 74-74. A free throw by Henton followed by a layup from Cotton gave the Friars a three-point lead—again—with a buck 21 left in regulation. But that evaporated in the bat of an eyelash when Paige made up for his miscue with a jump shot from downtown that knotted the score once more, this time at 77 points apiece.
Which, of course, set up the last-second drama that Friar fans now have a good six months to regurgitate in their collective minds' eyes...
“Those seniors.. I'm hurting for our seniors,” said a somber Cooley after the game. “I'm hurting for our organization. We've been pounding rocks for years at Providence College, and we'll continue to pound rocks until we win this whole thing. My goal coming to Providence College was to play with the best teams in the country every single night. We're not there yet.”
Then Cooley spoke of affirmation. In this, the Lenten season, he spoke of resurrection.
“Progress, patience, perseverance,” he said, which sounded very much like the Friars' mantra this off-season, and likely for many, many seasons and off-seasons to come.
“I feel for those kids,” he continued. “They gave it up for us this year. They could have easily packed it... and in, and for us to do what we did? They can't take away our [Big East] championship. We earned that. We earned that. That's something we earned.”
LaDontae Henton finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Tyler Harris added 13 for the Friars, who finished the season 23-12.
McAdoo finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Heels, while Brice Johnson also added 16.
Next Step: Earning Their Way
Where are those idiotic “experts” who were going to burst the Friars' bubble had they not won the Big East Championship? But as far as his team may have come this season, the coach sees miles to go before they can sleep.
“I thought we deserved the win just based on how we came back [against North Carolina],” said Cooley, giving everyone within earshot a linguistics lesson. “I use this phrase a lot. You may deserve something, but until you earn it... That's when you get over the hump. Hopefully if we're on this stage again next year, we earn a win.
Today we deserved it; we didn't earn it.
As for Cotton, the Friars' floor general and spiritual leader, the last game of his collegiate career was pretty much the same as every other game he's played this season: a 40-minute, non-stop, 150 percent effort in which he plays through pain and fatigue.
“I felt the same way I did every game,” said Cotton of the effort that will likely earn him a first-round selection in the upcoming NBA Draft. “Playing in elimination games where you know it could be your last, you're not really worried about how tired you are. I had so much adrenaline, so fatigue wasn't a factor for me mentally.”
So now that the 2013-14 season has come to a dramatic end, what do Friar fans have to look forward to in 2014-15? A rebuilding year, you say? Well...not really.
Keep in mind that besides Cotton, the only departing senior that made a significant contribution this season is Kadeem Batts, the 6-9 forward from Boston. And replacing this kind of talent would normally seem like an enormous challenge, there are several players waiting in the wings that could give the 2014-15 team the bench they so dearly lacked this past season and actually make the Friars a much, much better team.
Let's start with the returning seniors. First up is LaDontae Henton. The 6-8 forward from Lansing, Mich., became the Friar's No. 2 “got-to” guy this past season. “He may be 2-for-9 for the night,” said Friars' coach Ed Cooley. “I don't care. I still want the ball in his hands when the game's on the line.”
Next comes Carson Desrosiers, the leading candidate to step into the critical pivot spot that will be vacant due to Batts' departure. The 7-1 transfer from Wake Forest and Windham, N.H., native was one of the few Friars who contributed off the bench this season, averaging 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots in just 19.9 minutes per game. Double those numbers with increased minutes next season, and you have a true defensive force to be reckoned with.
And while the seniors will be looked to for experience and leadership, the key to next year's success lies in the hands of Kris Dunn—the straw that will stir the Friars' drink. He's the key. Or rather, his health is. The four-time All-Stater from New London High has been a veritable walking M*A*S*H unit since arriving on Smith Hill two seasons ago.
As a freshman, Dunn missed training throughout the entire summer and preseason while recovering from an injury to his right shoulder. Then when he returned, one nagging injury after another reduced his first season as a Friar to a virtual DNP-fest. Still, in the few games he did get in to, one statistic trumpeted the amazing potential possessed by the Pride of New London: 41 offensive boards.
But then, this past season, fate intervened once more when the 6-3, 190-lb. Dunn reinjured his right shoulder. This time, rather than chancing the rehab/re-injury cycle he experienced as a freshman, it was decided that season-ending surgery and an aggressive rehab regimen was the blueprint for making the blue-chip recruit whole once more.
And so it is that Dunn, who came to PC in the same recruiting class as Ricky Ledo to create what was projected to become one of the top backcourts in the country, is now expected to step in and fill Cotton's enormous shoes. That might sound improbable until you realize that Dunn was listed as the Friars' No. 1 player coming into this season—ahead of Cotton. He's that good. Assuming 100 percent success in his rehab schedule, there's no reason to think he will be ranked anywhere but on the very top of Cooley's depth chart in 2014-15.
“[Dunn is] that diversified guard that gives you a lot,” explains Cooley. “He’s more of a fundamental guy who’s going to get a lot done for us.”
Also in the mix is Junior Lomomba, a 6-5 guard who transferred from Cleveland State and will be a redshirt sophomore in 2014-15. Although Lomomba, a Montreal native, missed most of his freshman year with a broken foot, he put up serious numbers in high school: 17 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while leading Memorial High (Madison, Wisc.) to a 25-2 record and Division I State Championship in 2011.
Finally there's the heretofore afterthought named Brice Kofane. How much time has the 7-1 Cameroon native spent on the Friars' pines? No one except the most ardent Friar fans would know that his name is actually pronounced “Breece Ko-fawn-EE.” The last vestige of the Keno Davis era (he was red-shirted as a freshman during Davis' last year in Providence), Kofane came to the Friars from prep school in Charlottesville, Va., as four-star recruit, and showed tons of promise early on.
As a sophomore, Kofane logged in 436 minutes of play and had several highlights—such as the game he blocked seven shots and pulled down nine boards against Boston College. But he saw his playing time dwindle to the point where he only played 93 minutes this season—or the equivalent time of a short feature-run film. It was during the BC game this year that the 6-8, 210-lb. Cameroon native lost favor with Cooley after swatting away the ball when it was still in the cylinder—a goal-tending call that tied the game at 70-70 with 18.8 seconds left in regulation. That sent the contest into overtime, and while the Friars eventually pulled out the game in double OT, Cooley's confidence in Kofane never returned —a most peculiar development given the condition of PC's short bench.
Case in point: After Kofane flashed his potential when he came off the bench to haul down three offensive boards late in the game vs. Seton Hall in the Big East semifinals, he played nary a minute against Creighton in the Big East Championship Game or against Carolina last night. A defensive specialist with indisputable rebounding and shot-blocking ability, Kofane might very well flourish as first or second man off the bench in 2014-15.
And we haven't even mentioned Tyler Harris, the 6-7 transfer from NC State or Josh Fortune, who stepped up BIG time in the Big East quarterfinals when he registered a career-high 24 points against St. John's.
It's also important to mention the curious case of Rodney Bullock. One of two elite players recruited this past season (the other being Brandon Austin), both were suspended for the entire season for “not upholding their responsibilities as student-athletes.” Many thought that this was code for saying they blew off their academic responsibilities (and after UConn was forced to sit out the postseason last year, everyone realized that the NCAA was finally taking the “student” part of “student/athlete” seriously), but that's apparently not the case. Austin transferred to Oregon, but Bullock remained on the team, able to play with the team but not to practice or dress. Then, last week, a story broke that both young men were implicated by a female student who claims the two players sexually assaulted her.
While it's true that absolutely nothing has been proven (no charges have been filed at press time) and that accusations without hard evidence to back them up hold about as much weight as a Metro-North rail, until the situation is resolved once and for all, Bullock's status remains questionable at best. (He was not with the team during the Big East Championship nor the UNC game.)
Finally, Cooley, who is proving to be as competent recruiter as Jim Calhoun was, has three more Top 100 players, each of whom have signed letters of intent for the upcoming season. The big prize (and we're talking BIG) is Paschal Chukwu, the 7-2, 235-lb. shot-blocking sensation out of Fairfield Prep. Overall, CBSSports.com (247sports.com) rated Cooley's recruiting class as the 16th best in the nation, while Scout.com has the class ranked 18th, Rivals.com has it ranked 19th and ESPN.com ranked the class as the 20th best in the country.
Now, raise your hand if you think next season will be a “rebuilding year.”