PROVIDENCE – Right now, it’s clear the Providence Friars are not ready for prime-time.
In their second true test of the young season, the Friars fizzled in a major way as Ivy League contender Pennsylvania secured a convincing 81-75 win that left Saturday’s gathering at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in a total state of shock.
PC looked fine against the likes of Saint Peter’s and Merrimack, yet against teams that you won’t find in the lower tier of the KenPom rankings, Ed Cooley has seen his squad fall flat on its face on two occasions.
Like the Northwestern loss earlier this month, the Friars were pull-the-covers-over-your-eyes bad in the first half before running out of gas after spending most of the second half trying to safely navigate their way down the comeback trail. Save for senior Maliek White, there was a noticeable lack poise from a group that Cooley believes still has all the ingredients to be a good team. PC shot just 41 percent from the field and allowed Penn to bury exactly half of its three-point attempts (11-for-22 from downtown).“You never want to lose a home game, but at the same time, it’s a chance for our guys to grow. We’ll improve and get better,” is what Cooley vowed as the Friars turn their attention to the three games that await in Anaheim as part of the Wooden Legacy that begins on Thanksgiving Day. “Maybe we got a false sense of identity early on, but as other teams improve, we have to improve. Is our identity going to be offense or defense? Is it going to be doing the little things well?
“This team is going to be good. We’ve just got to tweak some things a little bit,” Cooley added. “I love my team. Is it disappointing to lose at home? Absolutely, but it’s not like our kids aren’t trying. You’ve just got to find the right combination sooner than later. From there, I think we’ll be fine.”
What wasn’t fine was watching Penn enjoy a comfort level that allowed the visitors to glide into the break with a sizeable advantage (47-30). The same Quaker outfit that coming in was shooting 27 percent from three on the season drilled 7-of-14 from deep during the opening 20 minutes Saturday.
Cooley tried everything defensively but was rudely turned away at every turn. Penn star senior A.J. Brodeur enjoyed first-half help in guard Ryan Betley as the pair combined for 29 points on 13-of-18 from the field. Betley also had it going from three (4-of-6).
For PC, trailing by 17 at the break could be traced to getting outscored by a wide margin in the paint (24-10) and watching Penn grab five more rebounds (20-15). Unlike Tuesday night when PC regrouped after Merrimack jumped out to a 22-10 lead, the Friars against the Quakers were woefully short on answers after Saturday’s opponent had the hot hand in the early going.
“I thought they brought it to us as opposed to us bringing it to them,” said Cooley. “They were too comfortable.”
Digging deep into his bag of coaching tricks, Cooley as a last resort slapped on a full-court press that helped spark his team and bring the crowd of 10,649 back to life. The move worked as Penn started fumbling the ball out of bounds and PC was able to slice the Quakers’ big lead – it stood at 19 points at the 18:29 mark of the second half – down to single digits (51-42) after Alpha Diallo (16 points, eight rebounds) converted a three-point play with 14:28 remaining.
Both sides ran into foul trouble as PC’s Diallo and David Duke went to the bench with four fouls with plenty of time remaining, while Penn’s Brodeur took a seat with four personals with 11:57 left. The Friars moved to within six (58-52) after Nate Watson scored inside, but back-to-back threes from Penn teammates Jordan Dingle (19 points) and Devon Goodman gave the Quakers some breathing room at 64-52 with 6:20 to play.
“We came here expecting a real fight. That’s what Providence does. Every aspect of the game is physical,” said Penn head coach Steve Donahue, who previously was the boss at Boston College. “We knew (a surge by the Friars) was coming. I told our guys at halftime to not be surprised by it.”
PC managed to move to within six (79-73) with 19 seconds left, but Penn held serve. Bentley led the Quakers with 22 points while Brodeur finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. White finished with a team-best 20 points while Luwane Pipkins added 14 points and seven assists.
Maybe getting on a plane and seeing if some California sunshine can do the trick is what the Friars need at this early stage of the season. From Saturday’s horrific display at the free-throw line (10-of-20 with seven misses coming in the second half), to once again missing numerous point-blank shots at the rim, they’ll certainly be plenty to pick apart and dissect on the upcoming cross-country flight.
“It’s a disappointing game, but we’ll get back in the gym and work hard and look to get better,” said White.
On a more uplifting note, the Friars on Saturday welcomed back freshman Greg Gantt, who missed the previous two games to tend to the passing of his mother. He was very active in 14 minutes with two points that came a breakaway dunk along with four rebounds, two steals, and one block. A moment of silence was held for Gantt’s late mom before the game and the PC crowd gave the first-year Friar a nice hand when he checked in with 4:02 left in the first half.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03