Providence coach Ed Cooley

Steven Branscombe/USA Today Sports

Friars fall to Villanova, await their fate for potential postseason play

John Rooke
March 14, 2019 - 5:34 pm

It sounded like a plan, at the least. 

Take some of the energy and momentum from a Wednesday night blowout win over Butler – turn it around in about 10 hours’ time and then and use it to your advantage against the regular season conference champs from Villanova.

Only one problem with that scenario, however. Nova hasn’t won two of the past three national titles for nothing.  They still have experience, and players who simply ‘make plays.’  They had three of those players Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden ready to take on Providence’s challenge, and they answered with authority in a 73-62 win over the Friars.

“The highs and lows, you know,” was how Ed Cooley explained things after his team came up short at the Garden.  “Definitely thought we had great energy coming out.  I thought we had a great game plan.  You know, I thought Villanova’s guys, in particular (Eric) Paschall, (Colin) Gillespie, and (Phil) Booth did a good job leading their team, and there are other guys that play a great role for them.”

That’s precisely how it unfolded in New York, with an experienced Wildcat team relying primarily on the players who have done it on the floor for them in big games before.  After the Friars jumped out of the gate with a 9-2 lead in the opening five minutes, the Cats methodically clawed back, and then they pounced – a 13-0 run gave them a lead they managed to hold onto by halftime, 31-24.

Gillespie connected on three treys, Booth hit two more and Portsmouth, RI’s Cole Swider hit still another to provide the first half firepower.  Suddenly, the energy boost from Wednesday night’s win over Butler became little more than a fond memory.

When the second half opened, however, the Friars scored six of the first seven points to pull within two.  But for the first of several times in the half, the Wildcats answered with big shots in return.  Paschall (16 second half points) and Gillespie (10 second half points) provided the cushion until Providence pulled even at 44-44 behind Isaiah Jackson and Alpha Diallo.

That push back didn’t last, however.  Gillespie hit a huge three to give the ‘Cats a lead they wouldn’t give up again, and Paschall nailed yet another trey with 6:52 left to put Villanova back up by six.  That ignited what would turn out to be a 17-5 run, and a 61-49 Nova margin.

“We had a really big transitional layup that we missed, really big, and then they came and hit a three and we turned the ball over,” Cooley explained.  “When you play like that against those teams, they’re very methodical.  They’re older.  It’s hard to make a comeback on that.”

The Friars pulled back within five with 3:18 to play, before Jermaine Samuels nailed another three-pointer to close the door on any more comeback attempts.  In all, the Cats connected on 10-31 threes for the game – not a great percentage, but in volume, it was large.  And decisive.

“Second half, we made adjustments and came out and gave ourselves a chance and just lack of discipline kind of hurt us,” PC senior Isaiah Jackson explained.  “Late switches, miscommunication, offensive rebounds, threes.  Just killed us in the second half, and in the first half.”

In other words, the plan fizzled.  But not without at least a little pop along the way…just not enough in the end to upend the champs.


The Friars were led by Nate Watson’s 15 points, with Diallo and Jackson adding 14 each.  Paschall led all scorers with 20, Gillespie scored 19 and Phil Booth added 13.  The biggest story came in the rebounding category, as Villanova held a 36-29 edge on the boards – including a 12-5 advantage on the offensive end. 

Providence finished the regular season as the top offensive rebounding team in the Big East, but Thursday battle on the boards proved decisive (21-8 lead in 2nd chance points), along with the Wildcats’ defense forcing 19 PC turnovers (for 24 points).

Villanova (23-7) moves into Friday night’s first semifinal against Xavier, which held off Creighton 63-61 Thursday.  Providence (18-15) awaits its’ fate in a potential bid to the NIT, pending the outcome of conference games around the country.

Villanova improves to 10-1 all time against the Friars in the Big East Tournament, and the Wildcats are 12-2 in BE Tournament play since the reconfiguration of the league in 2013-14…Thursday’s game was the 12th time in the 40-year history of the Big East that the previous year’s finalists matched up again in the following year’s event.