PROVIDENCE — So much for Senior Night-itis.
In loud and emphatic fashion, the Providence Friars announced they’re ready for the Big East Tournament after routing DePaul, 93-55, before another strong showing at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (12,103). The Saturday night slapdown was the perfect way for a quartet of Friars to go out in their final home game while maintaining a laser focus on what needed to take place before the scene shifts to Madison Square Garden.
“Everybody is zero and zero. We have a big-time game on Thursday against Butler. You know that’s going to be another war,” said coach Ed Cooley about what’s on next on tap for PC.
From the team that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way, to a team that’s probably at the top of everyone’s “we don’t want to play them” list, PC heads to Gotham with a six-game winning streak in its back pocket along with a program-record 12 Big East victories. It’s a turnaround that didn’t seem possible a short time ago, but to the Friars’ credit, they refused to put away the basketballs for good after a mediocre showing during non-conference play (7-6).
“We’ve said from Day 1 that it’s not how you start. It’s how you’re going and how you’re going to finish,” said Cooley. “Take a deep breath and take a minute and reflect on the ups and downs of the season. I go back to looking at the scoreboard in Brooklyn with 6:05 left on the clock and we were down 30 [to Florida on Dec. 17]. We’ve come a long way from there. The power of belief, the power of trust, the power of sticking together and not pointing fingers … it’s a credit to those players and those seniors.”
Any concern for a letdown following an emotional pregame ceremony that honored Luwane Pipkins, Emmitt Holt, Alpha Diallo, Maliek White, and Kalif Young quickly disappeared. The Friars wasted little time in jumping all over the Blue Demons, who went from down 13-9 to falling behind by 14 (29-15) with 7:38 remaining. DePaul (15-16, 3-15 Big East) got off to a 7-of-20 start from the field and went over three minutes without a point. It’s a disastrous combination that allowed the Friars to cruise on a night when five players ended up in double figures.
“We’re playing at a very high level right now,” said Holt, who drew a loud cheer during the Senior Night festivities and was the recipient of even more adulation after making a three in the second half.
If you’re familiar with Holt’s ability to bounce back after dealing with a life-threatening set of unforeseen circumstances, you perfectly understand why Cooley chose to bring the graduate student to the postgame press conference.
“It’s a surreal moment. There was a time where I didn’t know if I would be able to walk. To be here, it’s just a blessing,” said Holt, referencing the multiple surgeries that were needed to address an abdominal injury and the comeback trail he bravely walked down in an effort to earn a sixth year of eligibility.
Unlike Wednesday’s close encounter with Xavier, there was no need for PC fans to sweat this one out. The Friars pulled into halftime ahead by 30 (55-25) and led by as many as 45 points with 4:14 remaining.
Just in time for the postseason, the Friars (19-12, 12-6 Big East) are starting to find some significant pop on the offensive end. They shot 51 percent for the first half and ended up connecting at a 48-percent clip for the game. Saturday’s outburst marked the third time in four games that PC ended up with 90-plus points. It’s a stretch that didn’t seem possible not too long ago when Providence was known as a defensive-minded team with limited upside when it came to putting the ball in the hoop.
“When players see the ball go in the basket, you get excited and a little extra energy on the defensive end,” said Cooley.
A.J. Reeves – a player Cooley anointed as the Friars’ X-factor – led the way with 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting and 4-of-8 from three. Nate Watson turned in 18 points and eight rebounds while Diallo added 17 points. David Duke came through with 16 points while Pipkins collected 12 points and five assists.
“When A.J. is able to put the ball in the basket and stretch the floor, it opens up the interior,” said Cooley. “It gives you a different dimension on the floor.”
RIM RATTLERS: White returned to the lineup after missing the previous contest with a high ankle sprain. … The Friars were handed their Big East Tournament marching orders a few hours before Saturday’s tip. Thanks to Villanova’s win at Georgetown, Providence will be the No. 4 seed and play the 2:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal-round game. … All-time, PC is 2-0 against Butler in the Big East tourney. The first meeting under Madison Square Garden’s bright lights occurred in 2016 and was memorable for the huge show put on by Ben Bentil, who ended up with 38 points in a 74-60 win. The most recent BET meeting occurred last year with PC rolling to an 80-57 victory. … The 55-point outburst in the first half represents the most in a single half this season. The previous high mark was 54 points that was established in the first half of the New Year’s Eve win against Georgetown. … Providence finished 7-2 in league play with the last six coming in a row. … DePaul’s Paul Reed missed his third straight game with a hip injury.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03