PROVIDENCE — With so many options at his disposal, Providence head coach Ed Cooley has some work to do to figure out which players will see the court and who will have to patiently wait.
On Tuesday night, with his Providence Friars appearing to be in deep trouble, Cooley opted to take a long and hard look at his rotation. On that front, give credit to Merrimack, a team that certainly hasn’t played like a Division I newbie in the early going.
The upstart Warriors forced the Friars’ hand by pinning their hosts into a double-digit hole that stunned everyone at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. In no time, the abyss gave way to pleasant development that began with Cooley relying on a select group of Friars.
This ironclad approach helped the Friars to race past the Warriors, 93-56. PC responded from being tested early as Luwane Pipkins was one of six Friars to score in double digits. The guard was in complete control on his way to collecting 18 points (on 5-of-8 shooting, 3-of-5 from 3-point territory) while handing out eight assists.
Sitting at the podium postgame, Cooley mentioned a conversation he had with Pipkins after Saturday’s win against Saint Peter’s. It was late at night with Pipkins saying he was watching the Disney Channel — “That’s So Raven” to be exact. Pipkins came into Tuesday’s game shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 24 percent from beyond the arc.
Basically, Cooley’s message to Pipkins was to revert to the player who torched the Friars when he was hooping for UMass.
“You have to be the person we brought you here to be. I need you to be aggressive. I need you to be assertive. If you do that, you’re going to be a helluva player,” Cooley said about Pipkins. “I think elements of that conversation went a long way.”
Said Pipkins, “I was surprised he called. It was 11:30, 12 o’clock. I understood and took it in.”
The other pleasing development was the season debut of junior big man Nate Watson. Wearing a brace on his knee, Watson played 14 minutes and supplied 14 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting. He was able to get to the free-throw line nine times, though he made only two.
There were times when Watson was noticeably fatigued, but who wouldn’t be after missing so much time? When he caught the ball in his sweet spots, he was able to overpower the smaller Merrimack frontline. PC outscored the Warriors in the paint by a wide margin, 38-20.
“I was a little tired, I’m not going to lie,” said Watson, “but it felt great to be back in front of the fans and playing for coach.”
Maliek White was part of the group that helped turn the tide in the Friars’ favor; he ended up with 15 points. Kalif Young enjoyed his best game of the young season (13 points, six rebounds) while Emmitt Holt collected his first double-double in nearly three years (11 points, 10 rebounds).
The appointment with Division I newcomer Merrimack — a team that made waves for its win at Northwestern — did not get off on the right foot. Before the Friars knew what hit them, they looked at the scoreboard and saw the Warriors up 14-4.
In an effort to spark an offensive attack that acted like it was caught underneath under 10 feet of snow, Cooley slapped on a full-court press. The results proved disastrous as Merrimack ripped off three straight uncontested layups to own the upper hand by a healthy amount at 22-10 with 7:45 left in the first half.
“I said, ‘Hey, they give us 40 minutes. We’re not playing the way we want to play. Let’s pick up the intensity,’” was Cooley’s message to the group at the under-eight minute timeout.
From that awful beginning to the game that featured many of the same bugaboos that doomed the Friars at Northwestern — PC opened up missing 12 of 15 shots along with all five of its threes — a spark arose. It started with Cooley significantly cutting down his rotation down to a five-player unit.
The energy came from three starters (Young, Duke, Pipkins) along with two reserves (Holt, White). Upon being fuzed together, they helped put together a 14-0 run that resulted in a 24-22 lead for the home team. It should be noted that it was Watson who helped get the surge going with back-to-back hoops.
“That run we had, it came off Nate’s intensity,” said Pipkins. “He made baskets and we started to pick it up.”
There was a lead change after a couple of defensive lapses led to a pair of threes and a 28-26 advantage for Merrimack, but PC finished the half on a productive note thanks to Pipkins, who scored seven of PC’s final 11 points. The final salvo was a three-ball that Pipkins swished with eight seconds remaining that enabled PC to pull into the break with a 38-33 lead.
The upward trend was on full display as dunks by Young, Holt and David Duke — the sophomore was hit with a questionable hanging-on-the-rim technical foul — helped PC build a nine-point lead. At that point, Merrimack’s tank was running on empty. Watson proved to be a tough cover and Pipkins continued to have the hot hand from deep.
With 12 minutes to go, the poor start became a distant memory as PC was in complete command at 64-41.
RIM RATTLERS: Asked about freshman Greg Gantt, who flew home to North Carolina after his mother passed away, Cooley said, “I’ve been on the phone every day with Greg, probably five, six times a day. It’s very, very sad and we miss him a lot. He’s somebody that’s going to need a lot of our support. His Mom was his rock. We miss him and can’t wait to get him back out there. When he (returns) I hope the Dunk really embraces him because he’s going to need all of our support. He’s a wonderful kid and he’s going to be a hell of a player for Providence.” … Returning to the starting lineup was Friar sophomore guard A.J. Reeves, who missed Saturday’s game with an ankle injury. … PC shot 63 percent in the second half against Merrimack and 55 percent for the game. … Junior Alpha Diallo started but was limited to just 10 minutes due to flu-like symptoms. … The Friars close their three-game homestand on Saturday when Penn comes calling for a 4 p.m. tip.