Friar Basketball

Another Look: PC at UConn 2003

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College basketball fans are in the midst of the longest offseason ever, so to help fill that time I will be re-watching games from Providence’s past and sharing memories, impressions, video, and more. Let’s start with Providence at Gampel Pavilion to take on the beloved UConn Huskies in 2003.

No, this isn’t the game that led to the infamous Jim Calhoun rant about Ryan Gomes, but perhaps it planted the seed.

Gomes, a Waterbury, CT native, was a sophomore in 2003 and came to Providence with little acclaim. He sat for the first seven games of his PC career, and looked like a potential redshirt candidate before going for 15 points and eight rebounds in what was otherwise a forgettable night for the Friars in his debut against South Carolina. He never looked back.

By Gomes’ sophomore year he was on his way to stardom, only few realized it outside of the Big East. That’s what happens when leading a struggling program.

The Friars finished a game over .500 his freshman year (the swan song for Friar great John Linehan), and were 3-7 in the Big East in mid-February of his sophomore campaign before getting hot.

Head coach Tim Welsh relied more heavily on center Marcus Douthit and wing Rob Sanders beginning with a 69-59 win at St. John’s. The Friars responded by winning six of their last seven games before falling to eventual Big East Tournament champion Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals. With Gomes anchoring the offense (18.4 points, 9.7 rebounds), PC leaned on Douthit to control the paint in a 2-3 zone that became a defensive staple over the season’s final month.

The St. John’s win was followed by victories over Miami (featuring James Jones and Darius Rice), Villanova (Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter), and a loss to Georgetown (Mike Sweetney was a terrible matchup for the Friars) before they headed to Storrs.

UConn was loaded, but young. Sophomores Emeka Okafor (15.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and an insane 4.7 blocks per game) and Ben Gordon (19.5 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 42% from 3) were already stars, and would lead Connecticut to a national championship 13 months later.

Jim Calhoun’s roster also included six top 80 prospects out of high school, including junior point guard Taliek Brown (10), freshman sniper Rashad Anderson (24), the versatile Denham Brown (34), and East Providence native Tony Robertson (32), who was a senior.

The Friars had a top 100(ish) point guard of their own in Donnie McGrath. McGrath burst onto the scene with a 23 point effort at Boston College in his Big East debut (a win over Troy Bell and Craig Smith’s Eagles) and provided a steady hand at point guard who couldn’t be left open and rarely turned the ball over.

The super-athletic Sanders forced his way into playing time the next time Providence took on BC. The Friars were listless in a Feb. 12 loss to the Eagles, but Sanders, who had been pushed to the bench, was the lone member of the home team to play hard until the final buzzer, taking 13 foul shots off of the bench in 25 minutes. The next game out was the season-turning win at St. John’s and Sanders remained a rotational mainstay through the next 13 months.

Providence was without Rome Augustine and Abdul Mills, a pair of seniors who went down with injuries. Both were key contributors to PC’s 2001 NCAA tournament team when they were sophomores.

Douthit was a freshman on the ’01 tourney team, as were guard Sheiku Kabba, who played with New York City toughness, and imported shooters Maris Laksa and Chris Anrin. Both Laksa and Anrin were pretty much fazed out of the lineup by season’s end in 2003, however.

March 5, 2003: Providence vs. UConn

This was Senior Night for the Huskies. Connecticut had won nine of the last 10 games in the series against PC. They were 47-9 at Gampel in Big East games, had won 20 of their last 22 there, and were 83-13 all-time since it opened.

What stood out early was how careless UConn was with the ball, and how Providence allowed the 6’7 Gomes to go into attack mode with the best defender in the country on him. Gomes drew Okafor away from the basket on his first two looks — scores on consecutive possessions. Gomes threw a pump fake at him and drove baseline for a score, then on the next possession he faced up and buried a 17 footer.

Connecticut turned the ball over on four of its first five possessions.

Gomes made it three baskets on three consecutive possessions, taking the ball into Okafor’s chest before banking home a layup. Gomes started the game 3-3 from the field.

PC continued playing through Gomes early. He posted up Okafor and found Kabba for a 3-pointer, and after Douthit pinned a Connecticut layup on the other end, PC posted Gomes on Okafor and he finished on a beautiful spin and fadeaway. Gomes had eight points in the games’ first seven minutes.

Two minutes later, it was Gomes again, throwing a shoulder fake toward the baseline (where he’d done so much of his work early) and then spinning away for a deep jump hook that saw nothing but net.

The rest of the first half was more of the same. Through the games’ first 12 minutes Gomes had 12 points and UConn 13. The Friars led 21-13 at that point.

Providence led by as many as 11 behind Gomes on the offensive end (16 points at the break) and four first half blocks from Douthit.

Other first half highlights included:

  • A Kareem Hayletts sighting! The walk-on guard played six minutes and knocked down a 3-pointer. It was the only 3-point make of Hayletts’ career.
  • UConn barely got the ball to Okafor in the first half. He had eight at the break, and seemed to get whatever he wanted when given an opportunity.
  • Douthit’s shot blocking ability stands out, but he has an even bigger second half ahead.
  • Connecticut ended the first half on a 9-0 run to close the Providence lead to two at halftime. It felt like UConn regained control of the game, despite trailing the entire first half.
  • PC was out-rebounded 24-15, but held a 9-1 advantage in points off of turnovers.

Providence pushed its lead to six, as Gomes continued to roll early in the second half. He had 20 points by the 13 minute mark. Gordon knocked down a corner 3 to slice the lead in half, but UConn lost Laksa from deep on the other end.

Laksa was a 6’9 immobile shooter who knocked down 46% of his 3-pointers his freshman season, but saw his numbers tail off as teams rushed him off the line over the rest of his career. If teams didn’t, they likely paid. Laksa was lethal when left open. He never adjusted his game to meet the physicality of the Big East.

Side tangent: Laksa was a freshman my senior year at Providence. His recruiting visit came during the lowest scoring game in Big East history (at least at the time) — a 45-40 snoozer against Boston College in which Erron Maxey pulled down 21 boards. I sat next to Laksa in the student section and he couldn’t have looked any more bored. I figured he was surely going to Miami, who was also said to be recruiting him.

That weekend I saw Laksa shooting around with a rehabbing John Linehan in Alumni Hall. Providence was an awful shooting that year, and I was blown away watching Laksa bury three after three after three. A year later, Laksa, Anrin, and Kabba all shot very well from deep as freshmen, Linehan turned into a 40% 3-point shooter upon his return, and Augustin and Mills both saw huge jumps in their 3-point percentages as PC became one of the surprise teams in the country in 2001.

Laksa would leave Providence during his senior season. He went on to play professionally and for the Latvian national team.

I digress.

Douthit picked up his fifth block of the game with 9:50 left. Spoiler alert: Douthit finishes this one with nine blocks, so he’s going to enjoy the final nine minutes.

Connecticut tied the game with just over nine minutes to play before Douthit came up with a huge sequence. He stripped Gordon from behind in transition, leading to a Kabba layup, then rose high for block number six on the ensuing possession. Douthit pushed PC’s lead to three with a hook shot over Okafor.

It’s worth noting, at this point of the game UConn pulled Okafor off of Gomes for the most part. PC had successfully drawn him away from the basket and Gomes was getting whatever he wanted through the first 25-30 minutes.

Douthit picked up his seventh block 30 seconds after his hook shot by stuffing an Armstrong dunk attempt. It was the loudest of his nine swats.

Kotti came through with a pair of huge 3-pointers in the final seven minutes. The first came in transition, the second silenced a loudening Gampel with 4:30 left in a three point game.

Okafor dominated on the interior offensively in the game’s final ten minutes. He was simply too physical and athletic.

Diana Taurasi was in the house, as Ron Perry gave her and the Lady Huskies a shout out. They were 29-0 on the season.

Oh, and Douthit continued to make huge plays, picking off Gordon’s entry pass to Okafor with 2:45 to go. His ninth block came on UConn’s next possession. Douthit sent a Brown shot flying.

Providence then moved the ball beautifully on a possession that ended with Kotti finding McGrath for a back-breaking 3-pointer to go up seven. Ball game.

Gomes’ night ended with 26 points on 11-20 shooting, with Douthit’s nine blocks set a new career high. Kottit scored 13 points off of the bench, including 6-6 at the free throw line, to go along with four assists.

Okafor scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half and grabbed 15 rebounds. Gordon had 21 points, but turned it over seven times.

What came next?

Tim Welsh found the right rotation in February, and for the next year the Friars were very good. They won for the first time in five tries at the Big East Tournament with a 73-50 drubbing of West Virginia before falling to #5 Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals. PC led the Pitt game with under five minutes to play, but couldn’t muster enough offense to finish.

The Friars then defeated Richmond and Charleston in the NIT before losing to Sweetney (26 points, 11 rebounds) and Georgetown once again.

The momentum from the strong finish of the 2002-03 season carried into the following season. PC started that year 8-1, with wins over Alabama at home, versus Deron Williams and Illinois at Madison Square Garden, and at Virginia before falling to Texas in an overtime thriller. The Friars would be ranked as high as 12th nationally that season, and defeated both the defending national champions (Syracuse) and eventual national champion UConn.

Yes, the Huskies went on to win their second national title in 2004. The ’03 bunch fell to TJ Ford and Texas in the Sweet 16 in the tournament that saw Carmelo Anthony lead Syracuse to the national championship and Dwyane Wade’s Marquette team reach the Final Four.

Six players from the 2004 UConn national championship team were drafted by NBA franchises.

Ryan Gomes went on to a 1st Team All American season as a junior in 2004, and returned for his senior season — a year in which Providence struggled after losing Douthit, Kabba, and Sanders. Douthit and Kabba graduated in 2004, while Sanders left the program. Douthit went from looking lost during his sophomore year to being drafted in the 2nd round by the Lakers.

The strong February and March of 2003 paved the way for Gomes’ emergence into superstardom. After this effort against the unquestioned top interior defender in the country it felt as though there was little opponents could do to slow him. Gomes closed his sophomore season with double doubles in five of his last six games, including 26 points and 15 rebounds against West Virginia in the Big East Tournament.

Gomes would be drafted by the Celtics in 2005 and was named to the NBA’s all rookie team in 2006.

One Comment

  1. joseph R LaMountain

    March 27, 2020 at 10:23 am

    i love pc

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