Foul-prone Providence can't keep pace with North Carolina in NCAAs

March 19, 2016 - 11:31 pm
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Oh, the opportunity was most definitely there. While most casual observers of college basketball this season wouldn't have thought much of the Friars' chances of knocking off a top-seeded team like North Carolina, Providence coach Ed Cooley mentioned in his radio pregame interview, "When opportunity knocks, don't ask who it is. Tear the door down." And for 25 minutes, the Friars stood toe-to-toe with one of the sport's true blue-blood programs. In the end however, UNC's depth and ability to score in the lane, its lights-out performance from the free throw line, and Providence's inability to connect on open shots brought PC's season to an end with an 85-66 decision at PNC Arena. With the loss, the Friars end their season at 24-11. North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, advances to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, where it will face Indiana. A tightly contested, even chippy first half of play had both teams exchanging leads -- UNC up seven at one point, PC up three at another -- until the Tar Heels settled in with a four-point cushion (34-30) at halftime. For a second straight game, Friars star Kris Dunn (29 points) was forced to sit for much of the half, picking up a second foul with 11:07 remaining after having scored 10 of his team's first 14 points. Providence came out to start the second half with a burst of energy, led by Dunn. Two quick baskets plus a steal from Dunn, and two free throws from Ben Bentil gave the Friars a 36-34 lead with less than a minute gone in the period. But a sign of things to come quickly followed, as Bentil picked up his second foul only 1:15 into the half. His third foul followed less than a minute later, and all of a sudden a team that needed its two stars to stay on the floor lost the initial aggressiveness displayed in the opening couple of minutes. The Tar Heels pounded the ball inside and took advantage. With the score tied at 41 and 15:31 remaining, Dunn picked up his third foul of the game, and it seemed to light a fire under the Heels. Carolina scored nine unanswered points in three minutes, with four players connecting for scores, showing off the team's depth. A Bentil jumper pulled PC back within five at 50-45 with 10:56 to go, but that door Cooley spoke of tearing down earlier? The Tar Heels managed to do just that. A 17-5 run over the next 4:20 decided this one, as Bentil (21 points, 3 rebounds) picked up his fourth and fifth fouls -- the last one coming with 7:23 still to play. Carolina scored every way imaginable -- inside, outside and especially at the line, at one point hitting 18 straight free throws. The Friars could never catch up after the onslaught. "I think today just came down to they played well, we didn't," Cooley said. "We didn't make shots. We had some foul trouble. Overall, you look at the big picture, you hurt for the players. You want to win so bad for them. But you've got to make shots, you've got to make plays. "You've got to make shots in these tournaments, and we didn't have it." North Carolina's All-America center Brice Johnson led five players in double figures, with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Ten Tar Heels scored, and it seemed as if wave after wave of tall, talented players simply ground the Friars' season to a halt. After Bentil and Dunn got into foul trouble, it was a fait accompli. For Dunn, likely in his final game as a Friar before heading to the NBA, the end was bittersweet. "As a team, we kind of achieved the accomplishment that we wanted to do, which was get back to the tournament," he said. "The fact that we got past the first round was one of my goals that I wanted to achieve, so I appreciate my teammates getting me through this journey." As to the size and depth disparity that became more evident after Bentil fouled out, Bentil said it was more the Tar Heels' effort that hurt PC. "They just made good plays," he said. "At the end of the day, the refs made good calls. The size, it wasn't a problem for us, it was the toughness. They played better today, that's it." As has been the case all season, when a third or fourth scoring option emerged for the Friars, they were particularly difficult for any opposing team to play. Saturday night, Jalen Lindsey and Rodney Bullock -- the obvious candidates for assistance -- went a combined 1-for-12 from the floor for four points between them. Kyron Cartwright, Dunn's heir apparent at the point next season, scored seven -- all in the first half. The Friars also were outrebounded 22-9 in the second half, and outscored 16-1 in second-chance points. That door Cooley spoke of in the pregame? Torn down by the other team, one that now is looking for a possible national title. NOTES A 42-24 rebound margin for Carolina probably sealed the Friars' fate, although the margin did grow considerably after Bentil fouled out. With the Tar Heels not particularly adept at long-distance jump shots, Providence's defense simply could not keep the Heels from penetrating and getting into the lane, as a 46-18 scoring margin in the paint would indicate. Second-chance points, fast-break points and bench points all went the way of Carolina. For the Friars to have had a real chance to win, their effort would have had to have been near perfect. Just like it was for the Tar Heels. "We had a little setback there again, but we started to play better after a while," UNC's Brice Johnson said. "We were fortunate enough that their two best players got in foul trouble, that's the biggest thing that really hurt them." The Tar Heels advance to their 33rd regional semifinal and their 27th Sweet 16 appearance in the program's history. As a No. 1 seed, Carolina is 52-10, and UNC owns 114 all-time NCAA victories -- second behind Kentucky's 121. UNC also now has won 29 straight NCAA games in its home state, where it is 33-1 overall (the only loss in 1979 to Penn). Sophomore guard Joel Berry -- the ACC Tournament MVP -- added 15 points, and the Heels now are 29-2 on the year when he reaches double figures (30-6 overall). PC has been eliminated in two of its last three NCAA Tournaments by North Carolina. Overall in their 18th appearance, the Friars are 15-19 in tournament play. Dunn ends up surpassing the 1,200-point mark for his career with his second-highest scoring total of the season (29 points; he had 32 against Harvard and St. John's). Providence finishes the season with 24 wins, its most in a year since 1997, and completes a third consecutive year with 20-plus victories -- and an NCAA tournament appearance in each.