There are few reasons to be optimistic when a team is down by double digits late in the second half.
The Friars certainly didn't have many Friday night against Vanderbilt. After starting the game evenly matched with the Commodores the Friars were clearly starting to struggle. Shots weren't falling (the Friars shot 2-for-15 from three point territory in the first half alone) and their defensive efforts weren't getting the job done. Bryce Cotton, usually an offensive machine, couldn't buy himself a basket and had to rely on Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton to find ways to score. Rod Odom and Eric McClellan, meanwhile, were able to support Vanderbilt's efforts and respond to anything that was thrown at them, both finishing the first half with eight points. Kadeem Batts, the leading scorer for the Friars after 20 minutes, scored just as many.
Thankfully the Friars were only down five at the half, 31-26. They had been outrebounded and outscored, and they knew adjustments needed to be made. They weren't attacking the paint because of the 2-3 Zone that the Commodores were playing and relying too much on the three ball, something that needed to change. Furthermore they were getting killed by Vandy boxing out for the rebounds and setting screens to allow Odom to shoot open threes. Continuing to use Carson Desrosiers to clog up the paint and block shots like he had been, forcing the Commodores to risk getting their shot rejected or have to re-strategize outside of the paint. Desrosiers was only credited with one block per the game, but may have in fact rejected up to six.
Unfortunately, the Friars came out into the second half looking flat. The Commodores looked like a Final Four team playing against the little local DI school. Providence's defense was even worse. Cotton continued to struggle. Vanderbilt racked up points and Providence couldn't find the bottom of the bucket. Kadeem Batts was getting himself into foul trouble. The cou de grace for the Friars came when Kris Dunn, fighting for the ball under the Providence basket, hit the ground and began clutching his shoulder. Every concern Friar fans had about having Dunn back was suddenly manifesting itself on CBS Sports Network.
Fortunately for the Friars Dunn did make his return to the game and became a critical part in the late surge the Friars had. With 10:34 to go the Friars were down 16. What happened took place so quickly and so seamlessly that there may have been another team on the floor after the under 12 timeout. It began with a Tyler Harris going 1-for-1 on his free throw efforts, then Dunn converting on two his own, then a layup by Harris. Vanderbilt saw their lead burn away like a lit fuse on a stick of dynamite, but they didn't respond to the threat.
Then, after a TV timeout and another free throw from Providence to bring the Friars within 10, the explosion came.
Ted Bancroft heaved up a three ball and missed. Chasing his own rebound he grabbed the ball, kicked it out to Dunn where Dunn fed it to Harris, who was waiting in the other other to drill a three. He dropped it. The Friars were now within seven. Vanderbilt called a timeout.
It wouldn't help.
Vanderbilt came out of the timeout and immediately turned over the ball. Henton missed a three pointer that Desrosiers recovered and turned into a three point play, getting fouled on his way up for the put back and then converting on the free throw. The Friars were within four.
Vanderbilt called another timeout. Not even a full 30 seconds had passed. This wouldn't wouldn't help much either.
Damian Jones came out of the timeout and missed a layup. Bryce Cotton took advantage and converted on a three pointer on the other side of the floor, ending a tough drought for him on offense. The Friars were within one. Damian Jones then got fouled after the TV timeout with 3:53 to play. He missed both his shots that would've put the Friars back a bit.
Bryce Cotton made a jumper after getting a feed from Kris Dunn. The Friars were now up 57-56. Rod Odom hit a three on the other end of the floor to make it 57-59. It would be the last lead that Vanderbilt had. And it was short lived; 20 seconds later Desrosiers drilled the ball down for a dunk, making it 59 all with 2:35 left on the game clock.
Vanderbilt would not score again.
Meanwhile Providence suddenly couldn't miss. They stole the ball, grabbed rebounds, converted on layups and second chance shots. The Friars scored six quick points to put them up 65-59 with less than 30 seconds. Vanderbilt had lost control of the game. The crowd was booming "let's go Friars!" so loud the announcers thought the place had become the Dunkin Donuts Center. Vanderbilt had one last chance with Eric McClellan at the line to shoot three with 15 seconds left to recover some ground and maybe make soemthing happen, but McClellan only went 1-for-3 on his shots. Bryce Cotton was intentionally fouled and converted on both. Kyle Fuller heaved up a Commodores three and missed, and the game was over.
The Friars adjusted late, struggled on the glass, and was exploited in every strength they had over Vanderbilt for nearly 30 minutes. They allowed Vanderbilt to take complete control for almost the entirety of the game, and had anything gone different for the Friars at the end they may not have escaped this game with a win.
But it didn't go any different because that's not how this team is. The Friars, who are now off to their best start since 1990-1991 when Rick Barnes was head coach, won because that's the type of team they are. They find the ways to win, even if they've been blowing it all game.
The Friars take on the La Salle Explorers
on Sunday night in the semi-finals of the Paradise Jam. The winners will go to the championship game.