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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Friars for life

One of the main beauties of sports is the possibility (no matter how far-fetched) of the upset.

That's also what makes college basketball my favorite sport and without a doubt, the NCAA men's basketball tournament is by far the most exciting postseason in all of sports (year in and year out).

For those reasons and many more, last night was one of the best of my life. My great friend (Kevin O'Brien) and I took a night off from work (me) and studying for law school (him) to go see our alma mater, Providence College, probably get embarrassed by the Pittsburgh Panthers, the newly-crowned number one team in the country.

That never happened though as PC (17-11, 9-7) led from start to finish and wrapped up a 81-73 win that will look great on its tournament resume. It also marked the first truly signature win of the Keno Davis era at Providence.

The win moved the Friars to 2-10 all-time against No. 1 teams, the first win being in 1976 against Michigan.

After the fact, special moments often have an amazing serendipity in them and this particular game was no different. We had both been in Providence over the weekend for alumni weekend and saw the basketball team lose a must-win to Notre Dame, 101-83. It was a depressing loss to a team that's NCAA hopes were quickly circling the drain.

By falling on a Tuesday night, it would have been easy to blow the game off and cut our losses with a team that has too often disappointed us in the four years we were in college and the three years (in my case) and two years in Kev's case since we've moved on from the idyllic world of college.

The big plays were too many to count and I won't get into too much play-by-play. Pitt's (25-3, 12-3) trademark tough defense and dominance inside never really materialized as the Friars played inspired basketball on Senior Night.

Providence's five graduating seniors (Geoff McDermott, Weyinmi Efejuku, Jonathan Kale, Jeff Xavier and Randall Hanke) all fittingly stepped up in one of the biggest games of their lives.

It's a talented but madly inconsistent group that has yet to make the NCAA tournament (or win a postseason game for that matter) since they stepped foot on campus. The last time PC made the tourney was in 2004 and you'd be forgiven if you don't remember it: they were upset by No. 12 seeded Pacific in the first round.

Pitt's formidable duo of DeJuan Blair (17 points, 8 rebounds) and Sam Young (16 points, 8 rebounds) got their numbers but it was the lack of a supporting cast, outside of Ashton Gibbs' 15 points that sealed the Panthers' fate.

Cop puncher and oompa loompa body double Levance Fields managed just seven points and three assists as PC successfully shut him down, a key to defeating Pitt. It also helped immensely that Blair was in foul trouble throughout and fouled out late in the second half.

PC led by 18 at the half (44-26) but we never felt comfortable until the final horn sounded. This is a team that has been normally allergic to defense and Pitt beat UConn in Hartford last weekend so we knew they'd make a run.

The Panthers cut it to five with under a minute left but 3-point shooting (and playing without the widebody of Blair) are not their forte and they couldn't comeback all the way.

It's hard to single out one Friar since they all made plays. Efejuku led PC with 16 points, Curry added 15 points and Kale notched 13. McDermott had a nice all-around game with 11 points, six boards and three assists while Hanke was outstanding off the bench with 10 points.

Seeing the students rush the court after the game was a great way to end one of the most meaningful wins in program history.

Providence has two more games left in the regular season (at Rutgers on Sunday and at Villanova next Thursday). They'll need to win at least one of those and also a game or two in the Big East tournament to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

PC basketball is relevant again which is all that we ever wanted.

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