PROVIDENCE — You had to know a step backward was coming after the Providence College men's basketball team dropped 106 points and swished 16 3-pointers in its season opener.
The second game of the season, on Saturday afternoon, saw a sizable market correction in just about key offensive statistic. The defense, however, was once again downright stingy.
PC held a New Jersey Institute of Technology squad that came to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center with some athleticism and long-range ability to just 33 percent shooting from the floor and 19 percent from beyond the arc. Putting the clamps down in emphatic fashion allowed the Friars to cruise to a 76-47 win in a performance that proved to be a far cry from the offensive explosion that happened in Game 1 against Sacred Heart.
“It was another good defensive game for us. We didn’t shoot the ball well and were really sloppy offensively,” said coach Ed Cooley, whose Friars won despite a so-so shooting display (44 percent from the field, 30 percent from three).
“At the end of the day, we were able to hang our hat on our defense,” added Cooley, who all but declared that getting stops will be his team’s calling card this season.
What figures to make the 2019-20 Friars become known as a team that no one wants to see is their length. Take away Luwane Pipkins and PC is long at just about every position. That trait was really hammered home during the first half when 6-foot-8 freshman Greg Gantt was guarding Zach Cooks, NJIT’s 5-foot-9 junior guard who scored a team-high 23 points in the Highlanders’ season opener.
As the under-four minute timeout in the first half approached, Gantt succeeded in bothering Cooks just enough that the Friars were able to get a steal that resulted in an uncontested slam dunk for A.J. Reeves. After forcing NJIT into 23 turnovers and watching with delight as the Highlanders went the final 8:30 of the first half without a field goal, Cooley talked about the perks of having players like Gantt, Alpha Diallo, and David Duke — perhaps the top three versatile players on the roster.
“Recruiting-wise, we try to look for versatility at a lot of different positions, but one thing we’ve always been is long and athletic," Cooley said. "This is one of the better teams we’ve had in terms of that. I thought our length and athleticism played a big part in today’s win, in particular when you talk about David. If you ask what position he plays, you would say it’s multiple positions. That’s what it takes to be a really good player.”
On a day when many of his teammates struggled to find the range, Duke proved to be on target. The sophomore guard established a career best in points (21) while shooting 8 of 13 from the field. Even more noteworthy, Duke was 3 of 5 from three. Last year, he was a 29.7-percent shooter from downtown.
“It was a big priority,” Duke said when asked if improving his shot ranked up there on his offseason to-do list. “Having a more consistent shot opens up things for other players to do their own thing. But I’m also playing with more confidence. That comes with coach having more trust in me.”
Added Cooley, “David is the one of the hardest workers in the country. Having access to the [on-campus Ruane Friar Development Center], he literally takes advantage of it. He’s in there three to four times a day. I’m really happy to see that it’s paying off. There are times when we have to tell David to take a day off so he can rest his body. It’s a long season and it goes fast, but when you put the work in, you’ll get some results out of it. Last year was a developmental year for him, but this year he’s arguably one of the best defenders on and off the ball.”
Against NJIT, Diallo collected his second straight double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) while fellow senior Maliek White supplied a spark off the bench with 11 points in 21 minutes. Even Luwane Pipkins made a positive impact with five assists and zero turnovers despite struggling with his shot (1 for 10, 0 for 5 from three).
After pulling into the break with a 34-19 lead, the Friars were thrown a brief scare when NJIT moved to within nine, 37-28, with 15:55 to go. Then came a 16-0 blitz that featured a 3-pointer from the top of the key from Emmitt Holt, a jumper from Duke, and a trey from Diallo that put the Friars in the clear, 53-28, with 10 minutes remaining.
Once again, PC demonstrated that sharing the ball can be contagious with 19 assists on 28 baskets. In two games, the Friars have racked up 50 helpers on 67 baskets.
“We trust each other and know one another’s capabilities," Duke said. "We also understand that our shots aren’t always going to be there every single night, but to make the extra pass and understand there is a bigger goal than personal accomplishments. … It’s going to go a long way.
“The chemistry we have on offense, it’s definitely coming along. In turn, that makes every player on the court even more comfortable.”