PROVIDENCE – In a season that’s featured plenty of turbulence, Ed Cooley believes his Providence Friars are peaking at just the right time.
It might have been Senior Day at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, yet it was a freshman who stole the show and put on a shooting clinic, one that A.J. Reeves hopes can translate to the bright lights inside Madison Square Garden.
Reeves buried six 3-pointers as part of a 24-point masterpiece as PC stormed past Butler, 83-70, on Saturday. With his mom attending her first-ever game at The Dunk, senior Isaiah Jackson pumped in 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting and made all three of his 3-point attempts.
“I thought that was one of our more complete games,” said Cooley after PC shot 50.9 percent and 57.9 percent (11-of-29) from three.
Butler was flatlined by Providence’s execution and energy as the Bulldogs never once led while the Friars’ biggest advantage was 28 points with 13:06 to play.
“Give them a ton of credit. They had unbelievable energy early on and we didn’t match it,” Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said.
For the Friars, the season sweep of the Bulldogs caps off a 7-11 showing in Big East play. Butler also finished 7-11 in league play, thus the possibility exists for a third meeting when the Big East’s annual postseason Garden Party tips off on Wednesday night. The Friars’ reservations are definite for the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game at 7 p.m.
After seeing his team play flawless for all but five minutes of Saturday’s game, Cooley feels there’s definite reason for optimism as the scene now shifts to the second season. After playing back-to-back overtime games, winning one and losing one, the Friars against the Bulldogs put forth arguably their best performance of the season.
“It’s been an up and down year, but I think over the past three games, we’ve shown some consistency,” Cooley said. “It’s good getting ready to go to New York on a high note.”
To see Reeves leading the charge was definitely a highlight. After missing his first shot by a wide margin, the first-year Friar responded with a pair of 3s as part of a 12-5 start for Providence.
The sight of Reeves making shots from deep had to be encouraging for Cooley, who has seen his Friars this season connect at a frosty 32-percent clip from deep. Reeves wound up swishing five 3s in the opening half as Providence pulled into halftime with a commanding 48-27 lead.
“The seven weeks he was out, we morphed into something different. We had three seasons with A.J. One with him, one without him, and third with him back and trying to get him back into a rhythm,” Cooley said, referencing the foot injury that kept Reeves on the sidelines for a lengthy stretch.
Cooley said one of the points of emphasis this week was letting the game come to Reeves and moving on to the next play should a bad one ensue. When Reeves received a friendly roll on a jumper from the foul line, then followed it up with a layup and another hoop that pinned Butler in a 33-13 hole, it was clear that it was his day.
“I felt really confident today. I had a great warmup,” Reeves said. “I let it fly and when it went in, you’ve just got to shoot it again.
“Before I got hurt, I was producing pretty well. Coming back from the injury, you have to understand that it’s about finding your spots and taking open shots. Today, I played with more confidence. I felt I was calm out there.”
For PC’s Jackson, who shared the Senior Day spotlight with Drew Edwards and Emmitt Holt, he’s now gone over 20 points in consecutive games and is averaging 18.3 ppg over the past three games. His first-half numbers against Butler – 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and 3-of-3 from distance – may have been overshadowed by Reeves’ exploits, yet they weren’t lost on his head coach.
“He’s really helped us lately,” Cooley said about Jackson.
Butler did manage to dust itself off the canvas, using a 19-8 run to pull to within 13 (79-66) with 3:13 left. Shades of December’s UMass game must have been running through the crowd, but free throws from Nate Watson (eight points) and Alpha Diallo (11 points) helped get the Friars back on track.
The Bulldogs were dealt a significant blow when their leading scorer, junior Kamar Baldwin, committed two fouls on the same possession, thus fouling out with 15 points with 2:08 remaining.
“I felt the guys weren’t dialed in and felt the game was over,” Cooley said. “We told them that there was plenty of time still left, but it’s a monumental task to overcome when you’re down by that number. We regrouped and got the win, but the year we’re having, any win is a great win.”
Two unsung heroes for the Friars were juniors Maliek White and Kalif Young. White started and was the primary point guard for 35 minutes, handing out six assists compared to three turnovers.
Young was pressed into service after Watson took a seat with four fouls and 16:47 remaining. The door was open and Young responded with great awareness on defense and deft touch on the offensive end en route to eight points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I thought Maliek ran the offense with great pace. My gut told me to go with him more and was really proud of him. He got us into some good sets,” Cooley said. “Kalif has had a great three weeks of practice. He’s been very efficient and nimble on his feet for his size.”
Butler rebounded from 34 percent shooting to connect at a 53 percent clip after halftime. … Saturday’s attendance at was 12,004. It was the seventh time this season the Friars played a home game before 12,000-plus. … After missing 11 free throws in the overtime loss to Creighton, the Friars shot 18-of-22 from the charity stripe against Butler.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03