PROVIDENCE — The time has come for the Providence College men's basketball team to go play a real team.
No disrespect to the season-opening opponent and the one PC tangoed with Thursday night, but this coming Monday’s game at Wisconsin represents a prime early-season chance to see where the Friars stand when the crowd isn’t on their side and the opponent hails from a Power Five conference.
“I liked the fact we had a game pretty fast, knowing we have to get ready to go on the road to play a Big Ten team,” coach Ed Cooley said.
Before the Friars could tuck a 2-0 record into their suitcases, they first had to get past a Sacred Heart team that provided the home team with a stern test. Eventually, PC was able to find that defensive gear that the coach had a burning desire to see in a 92-64 romp that was witnessed by 9,716.
The improvement throughout a 40-minute affair can be traced to allowing the Pioneers to go from shooting 43% in the first half to 33% during the latter half. To Cooley, something needed to change and fast. There wasn’t going to be a simple play that would lift the Friars out of a funk that stretched back to Tuesday’s game against Fairfield.
Simply put, it was about digging deep and getting tough. Once the Friars did that, they rolled. The problem was that it took some time before better attention was paid on the defensive end.
“The first half wasn’t the way we wanted it to be with respect to urgency and respecting the game a little bit. I thought we were on cruise control,” Cooley said. “I told the guys I can deal with missed shots and mistakes. What I’m not going to deal with is guys not playing hard and not playing together. I’m pretty sure I made that point at halftime.
“There was no adjustment we made other than in attitude. At this level, it’s about how hard you play, attention to detail, and not being afraid to make mistakes. I thought we did that in the second half. Our attitude was the difference.”
The Friar player who personified what Cooley was seeking on this night found himself out there during a first half when Sacred Heart was slicing and dicing and enjoying a lead on the scoreboard. That same Friar player isn’t on an athletic scholarship, yet he’s someone who Cooley considers an extension to the coaching staff.
Over six minutes, Andrew Fonts contributed four points — he buried a corner 3 to erase a 25-23 deficit — and one rebound. He also dove for a loose ball where he nearly landed in the lap of the paying customers on the baseline.
“No offense to him, but he can’t jump. He’s not athletic. He’s had back surgery, but I trust him more than any player I’ve probably ever coached. He doesn’t play a lot, but we use him when I need him and he always delivers,” Cooley said.
“I know my role … trying to make a play while getting others involved. I try to be an energy giver, but I’m as confident as anyone on the floor,” Fonts said.
Cooley sported a scornful look on his face a few times during the game’s opening minutes as he played hook ‘em Friars with a few guys following a sequence that didn’t sit well.
He chose to send an even louder message that he was far from happy after the help defense offered by Brycen Goodine resulted in a 3 in the corner by Sacred Heart’s Nico Gallette. The shot tied the game at 23-23 and prompted the coach to pull all five players in the court at the 10:35 mark of the first half.
Out came Goodine, Nate Watson, Jared Bynum, Alyn Breed, and Justin Minaya. In their place came Al Durham, Ed Croswell, A.J. Reeves, Noah Horchler, and Fonts, a preferred walk-on. If playing defense wasn’t going to be part of your basketball lexicon, Cooley’s message was clear — you were going to watch the game from the bench.
“You don’t want to make a habit of doing that, but it’s early enough in the season to set the tone,” Cooley said. “Things happen. We always say it’s a long season that goes fast. Hopefully, we learn from that. If you do that during the year, you’re in trouble.”
Of course, it’s one thing to convey your dismay. It’s an entirely different matter when the struggles persist with the opposing team continuing to find harmony from deep.
After surrendering nine 3-pointers in Tuesday’s opener to Fairfield, PC allowed Sacred Heart to drill eight shots from deep (on 18 attempts) in an opening half that ended with the Pioneers well within striking distance at 43-36.
Tangible signs that the Friars’ lack of success on the defensive end continued to irk Cooley came when the second half began with Reeves watching with Breed taking his place.
Eventually, the defense morphed into something that proved more than passable. The shots that were there for the Pioneers during the first half proved elusive as the visitors missed 11 of 15 shots from beyond the arc after the break.
“Once we picked the energy up and got on the same page, I knew it would be good,” said Breed, who came off the bench to lead the Friars in scoring with 15 points. PC’s bench contributed 39 points after registering nine points against Fairfield.
Watson finished with 14 points while Durham added 12 points. Horcher added 11 points and seven rebounds as the Friars won the rebounding battle (37-29).
“I like my team. I’m not in love with them yet. I’ll love them when they match the physicality of my mindset,” Cooley said. “I want dudes who defend and rebound until they can’t breathe and have to come out. If we can set that tone, we’re going to set the foundation for a really good season.”