UNCASVILLE — For much of the afternoon, the Providence College men’s basketball team and its fans wondered if they would ever have the chance to take over the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Thanks to David Duke’s much-awaited breakout game, PC eventually gave the large contingent of Friar followers plenty of reasons to cheer and make noise Saturday afternoon.
After a largely forgettable first half, Duke and Alpha Diallo lit a spark that led to Providence’s 76-67 victory over South Carolina.
Duke’s ability to drive resulted in a 20-point day, while Diallo finished one rebound shy of what would have been his fourth double-double in as many outings. The junior, who was also recruited by South Carolina coach Frank Martin, wound up with 17 points and nine rebounds.
“I always say this is Dunkin’ Donuts Center South,” said PC coach Ed Cooley, noting the Friars’ past treks to play some hoops at a casino. “You want to get the crowd involved because that’s something our players feed off. It was fun to see the team grow up today.”
The chance to savor the comeback win over the Gamecocks will be short lived. Come Sunday afternoon, Providence will face a nationally ranked Michigan squad that dismantled George Washington, 84-61, at Mohegan Sun as part of the weekend’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament. Before venturing to the Sun, the No. 11 Wolverines put a major hurting on defending national champion Villanova, winning by 27 points.
“We’ve got a tough task, but so do they,” Cooley said.
The Friars (3-1) certainly faced a tall order against a South Carolina outfit that led by nine points with 15:35 left.
The Gamecocks (2-2) erased a seven-point deficit in the opening half to lead by 11 points before Duke swished a badly needed 3-pointer with two seconds left in the half. Cooley played 11 guys in the opening 20 minutes but nothing seemed to work. PC shot a paltry 25.9 percent and saw the team’s leading scorers — Diallo and A.J. Reeves — combine for just seven points.
“They guarded the hell out of us and did a great job,” Cooley said.
Just like the Holy Cross game, the Friars settled on a five-person unit that succeeded in carrying the day. On this day, the fifth Friar to join Duke, Diallo, Isaiah Jackson and Nate Watson was Jimmy Nichols, the freshman and South Carolina native. Nichols made his first-ever start against the Gamecocks, but any thoughts of a player who longtime Friar radio announcer Joe Hassett dubbed as Spiderman making a meaningful impact seemed to go out the window after Nichols picked up his third foul late in the first half.
Nichols was re-inserted with 12:28 remaining after the Friars succeeded in wiping away a nine-point deficit thanks to a 10-0 run that featured six points by Reeves, another first-year Friar who wound up scoring in double figures (10 points). When the 18-year-old Nichols followed up a missed 3 by Duke with a one-handed slam dunk, it became crystal clear why Cooley didn’t want to abandon the youngster after he ran into foul difficulty. The crowd certainly came alive after Nichols put the Friars up one, 50-49, with 9:43 to go.
“It was energy plays like Jimmy’s dunk that turned the crowd around. It was basically a home court for us after that,” Duke said.
Nichols helped supply the finishing touch for the Friars when he converted a Diallo feed into a two-handed slam that made it a nine-point lead with 1:33 left. Besides causing havoc at the rim and delivering what Cooley anointed as the energy play of the game, Nichols pulled down four rebounds and blocked one shot in 18 minutes.
“He’s got a good feel for the game,” Cooley said about Nichols. “I think he’s going to be a helluva player for the Friars moving forward.”
The assist by Diallo that led to Nichols’ aforementioned pogo-stick move on the baseline was one of seven that he doled out. Diallo was also a maestro on back-to-back fast-break dunks by Nate Watson and Duke that were part of a tide-turning 20-8 run that helped PC go up 54-49 with 8:31 left.
It was then Duke’s turn to ignite PC. After shooting 28.6 percent through three games, the freshman from Providence went on a blitz that featured a three-point play, a 3 from the top of the key and an assist that led to an Isaiah Jackson 3 that sank South Carolina in a 65-54 hole with four minutes remaining.
After a first half that saw the Friar guards struggle against pressure created by their South Carolina counterparts, Duke and Diallo realized the best offense was to keep on attacking as opposed to letting the Gamecocks set up shop in the half-court. The Friars shot 51.7 percent in the second half.
“There was definitely more emphasis in the second half to play with more pace … getting into the gaps and getting more people involved,” Duke said.
Added South Carolina’s Martin after the Friars outscored his club 49-32 in the second half, “They just came out, put their head down, spaced us and drove past us. They didn’t run any fancy offense. They just beat us.”
NOTES: The Friars and Wolverines have meet twice before with PC winning both matchups — 82-81 in double overtime in Providence in 1976, and 72-63 in 2004 as part of the Preseason NIT. … Michigan is led by Charles Matthews, who scored 25 points against George Washington. The senior guard came to Connecticut averaging a team-best 18.5 ppg. … The first half against South Carolina might have been much worse had Providence not made 14 trips to the foul line, making 12. For the game, PC attempted 34 free throws (making 28) compared to 14 for the Gamecocks.