Led by Rodney Bullock with a game-high 25 points (including 18 from beyond the arc) and a game-high 10 rebounds, and first-team All-America candidate Kris Dunn’s 20 points, the No. 12/13-ranked Providence College Friars ran past No. 9/10 Butler, 81-73, before 9,100 partisan fans at the sold-out Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday. Ben Bentil added 19 points and grabbed five boards for Providence. The win represents the Friars’ first victory over a Top-10 team on the road since 2004, when the Friars stopped the No. 4-ranked UConn Huskies at the XL Center (then known as the Hartford Civic Center), 66-56.
While both teams came in with just one defeat—Butler was 10-1 and PC was 12-1—the Bulldogs were ranked higher (even though the Friars’ lone loss of the season came at the hands of No. 1 Michigan State), because Providence had been idle since blowing away UMass by 24 points in Amherst 10 days previous. A far better indication of where the Friars actually rank nationally is their RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), one of the most powerful tools used in seeding the brackets for the NCAA Championship Tourney that takes into advantage several factors, including strength of schedule and overall strength of conference. The Friars’ RPI is No. 4. Indeed, with Xavier at No. 1 and Villanova No. 2, there can be little doubt that the Big East is the leading conference in college basketball at the time conference play begins. (Editor’s Note: The Friars rank is a measly No. 30 in the BPI – Basketball Power Index. But can anyone take a rankings system seriously that has St. Mary’s of the WCC [No. 18] ranked higher than Kentucky [No. 20]?)
But we digress… The seemingly comfortable eight-point margin of victory was hardly indicative of how this game was played. Indeed, the Friars went into the locker room at intermission down 11 points. Against a higher ranked opponent. In their house. Before a raucous, sold-out crowd. Not looking so good for Friar Nation. A lot of teams would have folded up their tents at that point. But not the Friars who, instead, stepped up to the plate. Big time.
In the locker room, Providence head coach Ed Cooley focused his attention on Dunn, who he started recruiting while he was head coach at Fairfield and who has been New London’s favorite son’s mentor ever since. “Truthfully, I said `Kris, go be the best player that you can be—be the best player in the country!” said Cooley. And it apparently worked. Dunn, who had just four points at the time of Cooley’s pep talk, caught fire, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half.
But Dunn was hardly alone. Bentil, who, like Dunn, had but five points at halftime, poured in 15 after intermission.
“I think part of it was their two best players were out for the bulk of the first half and they’re a big part of what they do,” said Butler coach Chris Holtmann of the Bulldog’s 11-point halftime lead. “I guess they didn’t foul as much in the second half,” he cryptically added.
And let us not forget Bullock, the 6-8 sophomore forward from Hampton, VA, who scored 25 points, and was 6-for-10 from three-point land in his first Big East contest. Talk about setting the bar high. As a team, the Friars knocked down 9 of 12 three-pointers in the second half.
“Coach [Cooley] just told me to be more aggressive,” said Dunn after the game. “I can’t really change my game, but we were more aggressive in the second half.”
And how. The aggressive style of Dunn, the Friars’ ultimate heart and soul, definitely rubbed off on his ‘mates as the Friars, who shot just 28.6 percent from the floor in the first half, including a 3-for-14 performance from beyond the three-point arc, turned it around completely in the second half, when they were 17-for-30 from the field (56.7 percent), and 75 percent from beyond the arc. They also turned it around defensively. After allowing Butler to shoot 50 percent from the field in the first half (15-for-30), PC limited the Bulldogs to 35 percent in the second half (14-for-40).
With Providence ahead by just two points, 61-59, thanks to a tip-in by Bentil with 6:28 remaining in regulation, Dunn and Bullock popped in consecutive treys to put the Friars up by eight, 67-59, with 5:44 on the clock. But Dunn picked up his fourth foul 21 seconds later, which required him to downshift just a tad on the intensity. Butler took advantage of the situation, going on a 7-0 run, and the Friar lead was down to one, 67-66, with 4:03 remaining on the clock.
Cooley quickly called a timeout to regroup his troops. Once back on the court, Bullock took matters into his own capable hands, and threw down another three-pointer to give the Friars a four-point lead, 70-66, with just under four minutes left. Then, after Bullock missed a dunk, Bentil grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Tyler Wideman. Bentil calmly sank both free throws, and the Friars led by five, 71-66, with 3:06 left in regulation.
A conventional three-point play by Roosevelt Jones cut the lead down to three, but that was as close as the Bulldogs would get. A jumper by Bentil (with an assist to Dunn), followed by a Bullock free-throw and two more from the charity stripe by Drew Edwards gave the Friars an eight-point advantage, 79-71, with 52 seconds remaining.
Free throws by Junior Lomomba and Dunn gave Providence a double-digit lead, and rendered a tip-in by Martin at the buzzer utterly meaningless as the Friars came away with an impressive win against a Top-10 rival on their opponent’s court. So much for not being able to play with the big boys (something implied after the Michigan State loss). Fifty-six second-half points will do that for you.
“Man, that was hard but it was fun to watch from the sideline,” said Cooley. “That was pretty special.”
“All we did was just battle back,” added Dunn. “We have a great group of guys. We just went out there and fought. That’s all we can do.”
Martin led the Butler attack with 29 points and nine rebounds, while Jones added 19, Jordan Gathers had 11, and Wideman 10 for the Bulldogs, who fell to 11-2 (0-1).
The Friars will now head home and prepare to take on long-time Big East rival 7-7, 0-1 St. John’s on Saturday. The Red Storm will be trying to snap a four-game losing streak. Tip-off at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center will be at 3:30 p.m., and the game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports1.