These are the games that can be nightmares for teams finding themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble at the end of the year. And that’s exactly where the Providence College Friars have been for the past several seasons. But this season looks like it can be very different from anything the Friars have experienced in the past 18 seasons. Playing for the second consecutive game without first-team All-America candidate Kris Dunn, Providence big man Ben Bentil came up big with a 19-point, 12-rebound performance to lead the Friars over the game Rider University Broncs, 73-65, before 7,852 fans at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence on Saturday night.
Two other Friars chipped in with double-doubles—Jalen Lindsey (13 points, all in the second half, and a career-high 13 rebounds) and Rodney Bullock (16 points, 11 boards)—to lead the No. 14-ranked Friars to the 11th win in their first 12 games. Rider junior Jimmie Taylor led all scorers with 22 points and Xavier Lundy added 14 (including four three-pointers), while Kahlil Thomas and Teddy Okereafor chipped in with 12 apiece for the Broncs, who fell to 2-9.
Dunn had hoped to play, and indeed, was on the Providence bench lending moral support throughout the game. But a lingering stomach virus kept the PC star grounded for the second straight game. The Friars also were playing their second straight game without 6-8 freshman forward Ryan Fazekas—out indefinitely with mononucleosis.
The game started out as if it were going to be a real snoozer. Providence hit six of its first nine shots and scored the game’s first 15 points—nine from Bentil, who showed no lingering signs of an ankle injury suffered against Boston College two weeks ago. But that would be far too easy for the Friar faithful. Rather, the PC offense suddenly went flat, and the Friar defense simultaneously went soft, allowing Rider to outscore Providence Friars 29-18 for the remainder of the half and head into the locker room trailing by a mere four points—33-29—at intermission.
Rider opened the second half with a trey by Lundy, cutting the Providence lead to 33-32, but Lindsey took control of the rudder for the Friars, draining three shots from beyond the arc, and boosted Providence to a seemingly comfortable 12-point lead with just under five minutes left in the contest. But down two studs down, nothing is comfortable for these Friars, and so it was that another soft defensive effort resulted in just a five-point advantage with 2:00 remaining in regulation. A short jumper by Junior Lomomba, however, and two straight defensive stops gave the Friars the room they needed to eke out another hard-fought, closer-than-should-have-been, victory.
“Those threes [by Lindsey] really stretched the game,” said a relieved Providence head coach Ed Cooley at the post-game press conference. “We were in a good rhythm, and that gave us some confidence.
Kyron Cartwright did an admiral job subbing for Dunn, throwing down a career-high 13 points while doling out nine assists. While no one is suggesting that illness to Dunn and Fazekas, as well as the aforementioned ankle injury to Bentil in the BC game, are necessarily good thing for Providence, the fact that the Friars are 11-1 with one game left before heading into Big East Conference play despite these setbacks, bodes well for the future, giving bench players quality minutes to perform before the big lights shine, and giving Cooley a great deal of confidence in the abilities of his bench players.
With the win—the Friars’ fifth straight—PC improved to 11-1 (the only loss coming against No. 4 Michigan State) and must quickly prepare for a date with the UMass Minutemen in Amherst, Mass., on Monday night. Friar Nation is hopeful that Dunn, the former New London High star who opted to forego the NBA Draft after last season for a third go-round in Providence—and likely becoming a lottery pick—is back in the saddle for UMass—the final non-conference game of the season for PC.
“[Dunn] just isn’t feeling well,” explained Cooley after the Rider game. “It’s a stomach virus and he’s just not there. He’s weak. He’s down. He’s sad. I don’t want to put somebody on the floor who’s not feeling well.”
Tip-off at the Mullins Center is at 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.