All season the Providence College Friars have been looking for that third person to step up to help stars Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. “The Friars can only go so far with just Dunn and Bentil”– that has been the prevailing wisdom all year.
On Thursday night, in the Friars’ opening game of the NCAA Tournament (the NCAA wants to call it the second round, but, really, it is the first round), sophomore Rodney Bullock took the baton and ran with it. In fact, he did more than just run with the baton. He passed Dunn and Bentil, and stole the spotlight from the two stars.
Bullock has played soft most of the season. He has been tentative and passed up open shots at times. He has missed easy layups. He has been pushed around on rebound attempts. Not Thursday night.
While Dunn and Bentil were connecting on only 12 of their 34 shot attempts (35%), Bullock was an efficient 6-for-11 (55%) from the field. No shot was bigger than his last one.
The Friars trailed the USC Trojans by one point in the closing seconds of the game. When Kris Dunn missed a desperation fade away in the lane with five seconds left, all seemed lost. USC was unable to control the rebound, however. The Friars had one last chance. With the season on the line, surely they were going to look for Dunn or Bentil for the final shot. That was USC’s thought process as well.
“I was supposed to curl off of Kris, and both of the defenders went with Kris,” Bullock said. “I was wide open under the basket.”
Freshman Drew Edwards stood on the endline, just to the right of his own basket. As he held the ball, waiting to inbound it, Edwards waited patiently for all the congestion and traffic under the basket to clear out. After Dunn and Bentil flashed through the lane and out to the perimeter, Bullock found himself all alone under the basket. Edwards fed him a two-handed bounce chest pass and Bullock made the easy layup– not a given for Bullock. Give the freshman Edwards credit for his patience and a solid pass under the circumstances.
The win — and the way they won — automatically goes into the annals of Providence College basketball history. The victory was the first one for Providence in the NCAA tournament since 1997 and the Austin Croshere days.
The win is the next step for Ed Cooley and his program. In his fifth season as head coach of the Friars, Cooley has led the team to three consecutive twenty-win seasons. The team has made the NCAA Tournament each of those three years. Two years ago, his team won the Big East tournament. What has been missing is a win in the NCAA tournament.
Now that the Friars have leaped that mental hurdle, it will be interesting to see how they respond in the next round against North Carolina. The Friars beat USC without their best two players playing anywhere near their best game.
Bentil was roughed up down low. Especially towards the end of the game, the officials swallowed their whistles as Bentil appeared to be hacked on several shot attempts under the basket. It is a testament to how good Bentil is that he still finished with 19 points and 9 rebounds on an “off night.”
Kris Dunn was in constant foul trouble. Same thing happened to him against Dayton in the NCAA Tournament last year. However, Dunn came up with some big shots late in the game. Dunn finished with 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists in 27 minutes. Both Bentil and Dunn played the full forty minutes.
USC led by as much as seven points with under eight minutes to go. They missed golden opportunities to put the Friars away. They missed dunks. They missed front end of one-and-ones (two in the final minute of the game). They turned the ball over. It would not be unreasonable to call it a “choke job” by USC, but the Friars did make some big shots.
With 8:51 left in the game and PC down by six, Dunn hit a three-pointer. With Providence trailing by seven with 7:14 left, sophomore Kyron Cartwright hit a three-pointer. With the Friars down by five with under three minutes to go, Dunn fed Bentil for a dunk and then made a deep three-pointer to tie the game.
Providence next plays North Carolina on Saturday at 9:40 p.m. from Raleigh, North Carolina in what will feel like a home game for the Tar Heels. Where have the Friars seen this before? See Dayton last year. The Friars will hope for a different result.