Nothing ever comes easy for the Providence College Friars. With 6:24 left in their Big East quarterfinals game against the St. John's Red Storm, PC led, 63-47.
Game over, right? Ticket to the NCAA tournament punched, right?
Not so fast.
St. John's turned up the heat and pressed Providence, relentlessly, full court. The refs swallowed their whistles. The Friars turned the ball over a few times. They missed key front end of one-and-one free throws when fouls were, actually, called. With 43 seconds left, the once seventeen-point lead had been trimmed to one. The Friars were looking at their chances of making the Big Dance flush down the Madison Square Garden toilets.
The Friars recovered their composure just in time. They made their last six free throws. They made some defensive stops and secured rebounds. The result was a 79-74 victory and a date with the Seton Hall Pirates, who had upset top-seeded Villanova earlier in the day, in the Big East semifinals tomorrow night.
For the first thirty-five minutes, the Friars played a flawless game. Their best player, Bryce Cotton, was struggling with foul trouble and a possible leg injury. Early in the game, Cotton slipped on a wet spot on the floor and appeared to bend his left leg in an awkward manner. He exited the game briefly, but never appeared to be the same after his return. He'd finish the game with 12 points on 1-of-10 shooting from the field.
No worries. Sophomore Josh Fortune picked up the slack and, possibly, gave Friars' fans a glimpse of the future. We may one day look back at this game and say that was the day Fortune took the baton from Cotton and the team became his.
Fortune has better range than Cotton. He also has an easier time getting off his shot. Whereas Cotton needs to have a clean look at the basket to be effective, Fortune has an easier time coming off screens and elevating over defenders.
The problem with Fortune has been confidence. In the second half of the season, however, Fortune has seen his shots going through the hoop with higher frequency.
On Thursday, Fortune carried the Friars, scoring 24 points. Over the last ten games, Fortune has averaged 13.3 points per game. Over that span, he has made at least two three-pointers in every game, except one.
While Fortune was carrying the scoring load, his teammates were banging the boards. A remarkable four players had ten rebounds or more. Kadeem Batts led the pack with 12 rebounds to go with his 13 points. Tyler Harris had 10 rebounds and LaDontae Henton had 11. Both had six offensive rebound apiece. Carson Desrosiers had 10 rebounds in only 24 minutes. He also had four blocked shots and was his customary, imposing defensive presence in the middle.
The victory gives Providence 21 victories for the season. Will it be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003-04? I think so. A victory Friday night and a trip to the Big East Finals would go a long way into removing any doubt.