Against Villanova, Providence Gets a Taste of the Big Games Ahead

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The first clue about what the Dunkin’ Donuts Center’s atmosphere would be like on Tuesday came 90 minutes before tipoff when the student sections — its inhabitants seemingly all armed with 25-ounce beer cans — were already packed.

The next came when the house lights were turned down, and phone flashlights turned on, for the national anthem: everyone in the standing-room crowd of 12,636 seemed to accompany the singer, as if they were limbering up their voice boxes.

They had come for a confirmation: that Providence, a founding member of the Big East Conference, would all but clinch its first regular-season conference championship and give the eighth-ranked Friars’ Final Four ambitions some heft with a win over No. 10 Villanova.

“This is bringing it back to the old days,” Ernie DiGregorio said as he awaited the opening tip from his usual seat, around 20 rows up at the free-throw line. “There’s a lot of the same electricity.”

Ernie DiGregorio was a basketball player at Providence in 1973.Credit…Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

There is nobody more qualified to make that historical nod than DiGregorio, who dropped 37 points on Fairfield when his team first played in this building, then named the Providence Civic Center, in late 1972. During that season, the diminutive Ernie D., along with his running mate, Marvin Barnes (who was nicknamed Bad News), became a national sensation and carried the Friars to the Final Four.

(It’s hard to imagine a more audacious or sublime pass than DiGregorio’s half-court, behind-the-back pass between two defenders that hit Kevin Stacom in stride for a layup in the national semifinal against Memphis.)

“At a school like Providence — it’s not North Carolina or Kansas,” DiGregorio added. “You’ve got to get the right guys with chemistry and experience. This team has that and they play with a lot of confidence.”

What they did not have on Tuesday night was Collin Gillespie.

Gillespie, Villanova’s graduate guard, scored a career-high 31 points from seemingly every spot on the court, including an ice-cold 3-pointer with 29 seconds left and the Wildcats clinging to a 2-point lead, to carry the visitors to an 89-84 victory.

Villanova guard Collin Gillespie scored a career-high 31 points on Tuesday night.Credit…Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Providence College fans in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.Credit…Kris Craig / USA TODAY NETWORK

“Game, set, match,” said Providence Coach Ed Cooley, who was as baffled as everyone else in the building as to why two Friars — Noah Horchler and A.J. Reeves — switched off Gillespie on a pick-and-roll, freeing him for a clean look.

“For us to leave him that wide open — that naked — is just inexcusable,” Cooley added.

It was just one of the regrets Providence will have from down the stretch, when the roaring crowd was intent on carrying the Friars back in a game they trailed almost the entire way.

There may be no better test of an up-and-comer’s resolve than Villanova. Coach Jay Wright’s teams may or may not be crowned national champions, but they rarely lack fortitude.

A painful reminder came last year, when Gillespie tore ligaments in his left knee just before the N.C.A.A. tournament. Nevertheless, Villanova regrouped and reached the round of 16, giving Baylor, the eventual national champion, its biggest test of the tournament. Gillespie watched from the stands at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as his teammates couldn’t hold Baylor off.

“I missed playing with those guys at the end of the year. Those are my brothers,” Gillespie said, acknowledging it played a role in his decision to return this season. Another was playing in mettle-testing domains like Tuesday’s top-10 matchup, an overtime loss earlier this season at U.C.L.A. or a thumping at Baylor.

“Being in the environment again, on the road, there’s just a togetherness that it brings out in a team,” added Gillespie, a role player as a freshman on the 2018 national championship team. “It’s basically you guys against the world. That’s the special part of college basketball.”

Jared Bynum drove to the basket against Villanova guard Caleb Daniels during the first half.Credit…Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Villanova (20-6, 13-3 Big East) looked the part from the jump. Justin Moore calmly hit three early 3-pointers and the Wildcats meticulously ran their offensive sets — taking advantage of Providence’s diminutive sixth man Jared Bynum — without much guidance from Wright, whose players couldn’t hear his commands through the din of the crowd.

“You could barely hear each other talk,” said Moore, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, and like Gillespie barely practiced Monday because of a lingering ankle injury. Just as importantly as Moore’s shot making were his nine defensive rebounds under Providence’s assault on the offensive boards.

Providence (21-3, 11-2), though it is a founding member of the Big East, is something of an afterthought in the league’s history. Every once in a great while the Friars poke their head up nationally — a Final Four appearance came in 1987 under Rick Pitino — but they have never won a conference title and have won only one N.C.A.A. tournament game since they reached a regional final in 1997.

Indeed, Providence may be best known for the coaches who have passed through here: Lenny Wilkens, John Thompson Jr., and Billy Donovan (as players who would win N.B.A. titles or national championships as coaches), Dave Gavitt (who would become the founding father of the Big East), Joe Mullaney (who would coach teams to the N.B.A. and A.B.A. finals), and two of the most winning active coaches in college basketball, Pitino (now at Iona) and Rick Barnes (now at Tennessee).

Providence head coach Ed Cooley grew up in South Providence.Credit…Nick Wass/Associated Press

Cooley is the rare coach who has stuck around for a while.

Of course, to him, it is home. Cooley, 52, grew up in South Providence, in the same troubled neighborhood as Marvin Barnes. He starred for Central High and didn’t go far for college — Stonehill College, just over the Massachusetts border — before embarking on a coaching career that landed him at Providence in 2011.

His teams play with his same straightforward countenance.

This edition just happens to be better. It is also old — Reeves, the youngest starter, turns 23 in June — and it has been around the block, with five graduate students and five transfers. The Friars, it might be said, are well-rounded journeymen who don’t excel at any particular trait except one: winning close games.

They had won all nine games this season that had been decided by 5 points or less until Tuesday — an impressive catalog that included wins on the road against Wisconsin, Connecticut and Xavier, and home wins against Texas Tech and Marquette. That equilibrium in tense moments, though, was absent against Villanova.

Cooley wondered where his defense was — “left on Eaton Street or in the dorms,” he said — but he was hoping that there were lessons to be learned for the final stretch of the season, many of which revolved around the way Villanova executed with calmness and precision when the atmosphere was bananas and the game was in the balance.

“They showed a lot of poise,” Cooley said of Villanova, which he characterized as a basketball blue blood. “This is as hostile an environment as you’re going to see in college basketball. My head is ringing, literally.”

Cooley was speaking shortly after the crowd emptied out of the arena. While he wanted his players to learn from the game, he also wanted them to think about the coming final weeks of the regular season, the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden and then the N.C.A.A. tournament.

The message: there will be more games like the one they played Tuesday.

“The last time I checked, the Friars are still in first place,” Cooley correctly noted. “So there’s a big picture there. As I just told our men, our worst day is a young man’s dream to be in that locker room.”

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