PHOTO: Stew Milne

The “bleeding” Friars showed signs of life on defense, and fought their way out of a hole against the Huskies on Wednesday.

by Jake Zimmer
Twitter: @JakeZimmer12
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PROVIDENCE, RI — It took exactly 31 seconds for Friars fans to buckle their seatbelts on Wednesday.

After Nate Watson surrendered the first offensive rebound of the game to UConn’s freshman bruiser Adama Sanogo, Ed Cooley called a 30-second timeout at the 19:29 mark in the first half.  He threw his hands up in disgust, shook his head, exchanged a few words with Watson, and replaced him with the junior transfer Ed Croswell.

As only Kevin McNamara could describe, “he will have none of that.”

As it turns out, that could have been the spark that led the Providence Friars, who came into Wednesday’s matchup with a dismal 9-10 record (5-8 against Big East opponents), to a 70-59 victory over the UConn Huskies at Alumni Hall.  The start to the game brought nostalgic memories of “old-school” Big East conference matchups – low scoring, no shortage of defense, productive counter-attacks, and, of course, high tensions.

If not for an early UConn 8-0 run, some mental mistakes, and a 7-3 stretch over the last 3 minutes of the first stanza, Providence could’ve very well held the lead going into the locker room. Instead, the Friars trailed 34-33 at the break.

The Friars controlled the entire second half, by way of both the scoreboard and momentum. Providence used two separate runs – 9-2 in the first few minutes, and 12-4 to end the game – to come out on top.  With the win over UConn, they broke a three-game skid and leveled their overall record to .500%, sitting at 10-10 on the season.

Let’s dive into some observations from Wednesday’s 70-59 contest in the Ocean State.

This was the defensive team that Providence strives to be. After the 11-point loss to St. John’s on Saturday, Ed Cooley identified the common denominator in all of the Friars’ recent losses has been the inability to defend.  That, quite obviously, puts Cooley and the Friars in unfamiliar territory.  As recently as last year, their defensive efficiency ranked 40th-best of all Division I programs; rebounds came effortlessly, so did steals, and – usually – they were able to significantly slow down the pace of their opponents, especially in-conference. “Our defense needs a lot more attention to detail,” he said on Saturday.

Whatever took place afterwards – behind closed doors – seemed to work for the Friars on Wednesday. The game plan was clearly to eliminate the success of a very physical & offensive-minded UConn frontcourt, dominated by three starters who all are listed at 6’9”.  This year, the Huskies have found most of their successes by way of the offensive rebound, in which they’ve utilized their height to convert a whopping 36.8% of their ORB opportunities.

But on Wednesday, Providence was the victor on both sides of the glass. They collected 12 offensive rebounds to UConn’s 10, and 27 on defensive to UConn’s 24. It took a relentless effort from redshirt senior Noah Horchler, who finished with 10 rebounds and just a point shy of a double-double.  Horchler & Watson – among other bench contributors Greg Gantt, Kris Monroe & Ed Croswell – teamed up to put a lid on the opposing forwards; the four that appeared for the Huskies scored only 22 points between them (Tyler Polley, Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley, Josh Carlton).

It’s clear that defense was the priority coming in, and Ed Cooley got the effort he’d hoped. Now, in a thin Friars team, he’ll lean on Noah Horchler to contribute to David Duke & Nate Watson’s efforts…especially defensively. 

Ed Cooley, yet again, shows unwavering support for his players.  Cooley is widely regarded as one of the most effective leadership practitioners among head coaches in the Big East.  He’s had no shortage of trying times for this program during his time at the helm; many forget that as recent as last year, Providence found itself up against the wall, desperate for a win in December after being steamrolled by Florida in 83-51 fashion.

But Cooley didn’t cower, or regress, or paint a picture of negativity. Instead, he admittedly led with desperation, hoping to lead his men back on the right path through unwavering faith & confidence in their ability. 

His quote after their 70-48 win over Texas last year:

We’re making sure we’re staying with the process – we will continue to talk about what we can be, and what we will be, versus what we weren’t. I think you have to have a positive approach when you’re struggling. You have to give your men incredible security and confidence that we are a good team.

Ed Cooley — December 20, 2019, after 70-48 win over Texas

Very similarly this year, Cooley is tasked with leading his Providence Friars out of a hole. He admitted it was one of the most frustrating times in his career as a head coach, but immediately followed it up with this:

If nothing else, the Friars have a coach who believes in them like few other programs do.

Is the rivalry back? Rhode Islanders were licking their chops at this matchup.  For those that are new to the Ed Cooley-Dan Hurley show, you’ve missed quite a bit; Ed Cooley has now posted a 6-1 all-time record against Hurley-coached teams, dating back to his days as the head coach of University of Rhode Island. They’d face off in some scathing, high-tension battles in the annual Providence vs. URI games – not without their technical fouls – and in all but one tilt, Cooley came out on top. 

Many don’t recognize the Friars & Huskies as rivals, but New England basketball aficionados can certainly appreciate the history. Their first matchup came in 1928, a game in which UConn won 29-21 in Storrs.  Providence has historically not had much success against UConn; they hold the worse half of a 29-44 all-time mark on the Huskies, 15-17 at home, and 11-24 on the road. The Friars had lost two straight coming into Wednesday’s tilt; both in overtime, both decided by four points or less. 

One thing is for sure – when the basketball gods bless us with fans in the stands again, we are in for a treat.