If a 1-6 January was discouraging for the 2011-12 Friars, the first four games of February were disheartening.
A case could be made that Providence should have won all four. The Friars opened with a 78-67 win over a Rutgers team looking to push their Big East record to .500, thanks in large part to the clutch shooting of sophomore Bryce Cotton.
Providence had their best burst since the Louisville win two weeks prior, ripping off a 25-5 run in the first half, as PC led 40-26 at halftime. It was only the third time all season Rutgers had allowed 40 points in a half. The on-again, off-again PC attack was clicking on all cylinders behind Vincent Council, who had 11 points and 10 assists at the break.
A 15 point Providence advantage with under 13 minutes to play was cut to just four with six minutes to go before Gerard Coleman (15 points, 7 rebounds) scored the next four points to push the lead back to 60-52.
The Scarlet Knights persisted, getting back to within 64-60 with 2:34 to play, as the Friars were on their heels prior to Cotton’s clutch threes (at the 2:15 and 1:54 marks) on the next two possessions pushed the lead to 10. PC went 8-8 at the foul line in the final two minutes (4-4 for Coleman, 2-2 from Cotton, 2-2 from Bilal Dixon) to seal it.
The Friars’ rode fine execution over the final three minutes and a huge night from Dixon (18 points on 6-7 from the field, 10 rebounds, five blocks) to victory. With little room for error, Providence followed a necessary formula for success: getting production from a big, execution down the stretch, and numbers from the foursome of Council (14 assists), Cotton (17 points on 5-10 from 3), LaDontae Henton (15 and 9), and Coleman (15 and 7 in 28 minutes off the bench).
Three Close Calls
Providence got production from a big (10 rebounds for Dixon) and huge numbers for their top foursome on Super Bowl Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their lack of execution down the stretch in an 87-84 stomach kick against West Virginia.
Ed Cooley’s group fought throughout, starting a blazing 16-18 from the field, with a suddenly re-energized Dixon nearly out-rebounding the massive 4-5 combo of Kevin Jones (5) and Deniz Kilicli (6) by himself on the afternoon.
Offensively, it was Henton (5-6 from 3 for 17 points), Council (16 points, 9 assists) and Cotton (3-6 from 3, 15 points) playing a supporting role to Coleman, who was re-inserted into the starting lineup and attacked the paint in the way that so many recruiting prognosticators believed he would when they made him a top 60 player in the class of 2010.
The Mountaineers simply had no match for Coleman, who had 30 points on 9-15 from the field and 12-16 from the free throw line in a game Providence controlled 70-63 with 5:30 to play before a flurry of WVU offensive rebounds and a Darryl Bryant layup with four seconds left sent the game into overtime – a session that featured five lead changes until Bryant ripped the heart out of Friartown once and for all, nailing a three pointer with five seconds remaining to give WVU the 87-84 win.
PC’s ultimate swing player, Cotton, was the difference maker as the Friars jumped out to a 19 point second half advantage on the road at Villanova.
Cotton connected on six 3 pointers in the first half, including four in the final 2:45 that turned a 30-29 game into a decisive 44-30 edge by the time his final shot fell through with 48 seconds left in the half.
When Henton drilled a three to put Providence up 19 with 14:05 left on the clock, a big road win seemed inevitable, but Nova ripped off a 19-1 run over the next eight minutes to make it a 61-60 game.
Amazingly, Council would be the only Friar to connect on a field goal in the game’s final 14 minutes, as Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston attacked the rim at will on his way to 28 points and 14 rebounds – scoring the game’s final nine points to give the Wildcats an improbable 74-72 win.
Playing at South Florida’s plodding pace, the Friars looked primed to beat them at their own game after falling in Tampa back in January. PC led 46-41 with 2:30 remaining, but little-used shooter Shaun Noriega canned a pair of three pointers on back to back possessions to give USF the lead with just under two minutes to play.
A Henton bucket momentarily gave Providence the lead back, at 48-47 with 1:19 left, but South Florida closed on an 8-0 run (all eight points were scored at the line) to give them a 55-48 victory on an afternoon in which the Friars struggled to score in a methodical halfcourt game, shooting 1-12 from three and 30% from the field overall.
Following three crushing defeats, the will of the Friars looked to have been broken, as they played a pair of the Big East’s best the next two times out. They were never really in it in an 81-66 loss to Cincinnati, and for the second time this season they struggled to muster any semblance of offense against Georgetown, falling 63-53 at home.
Providence exorcized a pair of demons at DePaul – and continued to see their All-Big East freshman emerge as one of the league’s best young players as February drew to a close.
A 22 game road Big East losing streak looked to be coming to a close when a Cotton three capped a 14-1 Friar run to give PC a 60-49 lead with 9:37 left.
As had been the case throughout February, a Providence offense that had produced good shots early, fell apart late as PC made just two shots from the field over the final six minutes, as DePaul tied it at 71 with 35 seconds to play.
It had been LaDontae Henton’s night to that point. The freshman, who had destroyed the rookie wall in the second half of his first season, had scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds when Council found him at the top of the key for a last second jumper that he calmly swished with two seconds on the clock. He wasn’t done though.
Henton collected his third block on the game’s final play, deflecting a jump shot to give Providence their second win in February and first conference road win in 23 tries. He closed with 24 points (a perfect 5-5 from the line, 9-18 from the field), 15 rebounds (8 offensive), and a pair of steals in 40 minutes.
February would close with a game Providence shouldn’t have had much of a shot in. Playing a desperate Connecticut team, one featuring a pair of potential lottery picks in Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, the Friars certainly looked over-matched on paper.
Things started according to plan, with Drummond overwhelming Providence inside,enjoying himself in the process, dunking and pointing over to former AAU teammate Kris Dunn, Providence’s star recruit who had become a staple behind the PC bench throughout the season.
Down 12 with 15 minutes to play, Providence began chipping away. As had been the case throughout the season, Cotton was once again PC’s swing player, completely changing the course of what was a comfortable game for the Huskies with a barrage of three pointers.
The first, with 10:20 left, brought PC back to within 8 at 52-44. 40 seconds later he hit another to make it 54-47. A pair of Council jumpers followed to make it 54-51 50 seconds later, before Cotton stuck another three with 8:24 to go to tie it.
90 seconds later it was Cotton once again finding the range from deep, giving the Friars a lead they’d never lose, 59-56.
After Connecticut pulled to within 63-61 with two minutes left, it was time for Henton to close the deal.
Perhaps the most encouraging outcome in February was the emergence of Henton as a clutch jump shooter.
Trailing by two with two minutes to play in overtime against West Virginia he hit a contested three, giving the Friars a one point lead and blowing the roof off the Dunkin Donuts Center in the process.
A game earlier he broke DePaul’s heart with a buzzer-beating jumper.
He gave Providence a one point edge with a bucket at the 1:19 mark against USF.
Now it was Connecticut’s turn.
Henton hit a high-arching three over the 6’11 Drummond with 1:56 left to give PC much-needed breathing room (66-61), and then hit a seemingly impossible three at the 1:01 mark that all but ended it at 69-61.
Desperation threes by Lamb and missed Friar free throws gave PC a scare, but Providence closed the month with their second straight victory, 72-70.
A 3-5 February was a step forward from the 1-6 January that put them in a sizable hole in the Big East standings. One could make an argument that this team was two or three plays away from finishing February 5-3.
Perhaps most encouraging was the close to February, a month that has sapped Providence of their energy and confidence in recent seasons. That looked to be the case in 2012, as they fumbled away three late leads before being soundly handled by Cincinnati and Georgetown, but responded with their first conference road win in two seasons and the upset of Connecticut to close things out.
Henton was a matchup nightmare for bigger opponents, as he twice reached the 24 point mark in the month, and began shooting the three point shot as efficiently as anyone in the Big East. He made 18 three point field goals in eight games, shooting over 50% from that range for the month (18-35).
An equally significant development was his emergence as a clutch shooter from deep, as evidence by his pair of threes against Connecticut in the final two minutes, the three versus West Virginia late in OT, the shot that gave PC a lead with just over a minute to play versus USF, and his game winner at DePaul.
Council continued to strive in the role of lone play-maker, dishing out double digit assists in nearly half of the month’s games, while exploding for 29 on the road at Cincinnati. He played 40 minutes in all games but two: 39 versus South Florida and the full 45 against West Virginia. Providence went undefeated in February when he had double digit assists.
Cotton was blazing to start the month, hitting 14 threes over the first three games before going 4-28 from deep over the next three. He closed the month connecting on 5-9 from deep against UConn, finishing with 25 threes in eight games. Cotton didn’t miss a free throw in February, but only attempted nine.
Teams with length continued to be a problem for Coleman, with the exception of the West Virginia game, which turned out to be the best of his soon-to-be-completed Friar career. The sophomore showed flashes of becoming the player many thought the Friars were getting when he signed, attempting a whopping 27 free throws in the month’s first two games and following that effort up with 16 more points at Villanova.
The size of South Florida (1-10 from the field) exposed some of his flaws, and he shot terribly (3-13 from the field, 2-7 at the line) against DePaul before closing with a strong effort versus Connecticut (13 points, 7 rebounds, four assists, 5-7 at the free throw line).
Somewhat forgotten since the season closed was the strong spurt of Dixon early in the month, who had 28 rebounds in the first three games. Not surprisingly, when Providence got an effort from the big man they had an opportunity to win all three games. Breakdowns against Villanova and West Virginia late wouldn’t allow it.
Inconsistency plagued Dixon’s career, however, and his production fell as the month wore on, as he grabbed 15 rebounds over the month’s final five games. He played less than 15 minutes in the final four, only seeing the floor for four minutes at DePaul.
Kadeem Batts had a largely forgettable month, prior to a strong 13 rebound effort against a big Connecticut frontcourt. In Batts’ most effective games this season he was getting to the free throw line frequently, going 9-10 in his monster 27 point effort versus Louisville and 8-10 against Syracuse. He only shot 10 free throws the entire month of February, and saw his minutes dip as well, playing 15 minutes or less in four of the eight games in February. He didn’t break into double figures in the month.
Brice Kofane saw sporatic minutes, not seeing the floor in three of the eight games, and getting a combined three minutes against West Virginia and Connecticut. Kofane did provide a lift at DePaul blocking three shots and going 3-4 from the field in 21 minutes.