PROVIDENCE — It was far from easy, but Nate Watson and the Providence College men's basketball team were able to get the job done on the first night of the new season.
Before 9,990 fans who celebrated like it was New Year’s Eve — this after being unable to witness their favorite team at home last year due to COVID-19 — the Friars walked off the Dunkin’ Donuts Center court with an 80-73 win over a Fairfield squad that proved more than up to the task.
PC never truly shook off its opponent, but thankfully Watson (22 points on 10-of-14 shooting) and newcomer Al Durham (18 points) proved more than up to the task.
Six of Ed Cooley’s players ended up playing 25-plus minutes — five starters and one reserve. It was as short as any early-season rotation in recent history as the Friars primarily rolled with Watson and Durham along with A.J. Reeves (13 points), Noah Horchler (10 points, 11 rebounds), Jared Bynum and Justin Minaya.
PC’s big advantage on this night came at the free-throw line, making 24 compared to 10 for Fairfield. Of course, the Friars did miss 12 shots from the charity stripe. Providence was also outrebounded, 35-32, and shot 5 of 18 from three.
In the eyes of the coach, there’s only one place to go and that’s up.
“We were fortunate to win. We made a lot of mistakes against a determined basketball team,” Cooley said. “I’m happy about the win. I’m not happy with our execution. I’m not happy about our toughness. I’m not happy about our shot selection. I’m not happy with our attitude and approach to the game. We’re a work in progress. We’ll get there.”
Fairfield placed four players in double digits with Zach Crisler leading the way with 14 points.
After getting off to a quick 7-0 lead that came on the heels of some impressive pregame pageantry that gave off the impression that all was right in the world — at least as college basketball is concerned — the Friars fell victim to an avalanche of 3-pointers. Fairfield not only caught the home team but surged past them. On the strength of four triples, the Stags pushed back to take a 14-12 lead.
At one point, PC had nearly as many turnovers (six) than field-goal attempts. It was either feast or famine for a while with every sloppy sequence briefly forgotten when Reeves drove hard to the rim or the Friars pushed the pace without the aid of a dribble — Minaya finding Alyn Breed for a layup that made it 26-24 in PC’s favor.
Providence regained some of its early-game swagger right before the half. Up 34-33, PC received a 3 from Horchler with the Friars also receiving hoops from Bynum and Durham. It was all part of an 8-2 run — Reeves started it with a 1-for-2 showing at the free-throw line — that helped the Friars build a 42-35 advantage at the break.
Two free throws via a technical foul by Fairfield’s Supreme Cook — he and PC’s Ed Croswell got tangled up after the horn — and a 3-pointer from Horchler looked to be the start of a second half in which the Friars would be able to coast and start looking ahead to Thursday’s game against Sacred Heart. But no such luck. With Long leading the charge, Fairfield was within two, 57-55, after a hoop-and-harm finish with 12:03 remaining.
It remained a one-possession game over the next few minutes before some Friar padding was applied behind Durham and Watson on back-to-back trips. Providence continued to lean on its veterans — free throws from Durham, Watson and Minaya translated into the first double-digit lead of the contest, 74-64, with 4:09 left.
PC could never push the game completely out of range, though it was clear that Fairfield’s tank was running on empty. It was 79-73 with 4.2 seconds left when Durham made a pair at the line that sent everyone home happy.
“As a coach, you always try to look at things negatively when you’re in these early-season games,” Cooley said. “A win is a win, but we’re not going to be able to compete at the level we’re trying to compete at if we have another performance like that.”