After Providence defeated DePaul back on New Year’s Day, head coach Ed Cooley was asked about forward Justin Minaya. Cooley described him in glowing terms, calling him “one of the better defenders” the eleventh year Friars head man had ever coached. Minaya transferred to Providence this season from South Carolina, and while his numbers may have dipped a bit, the veteran has provided an immediate impact on defense.
Fast forward to today. After leading by as many as 14 in the first half, the #17 Providence Friars found themselves in a tied game with the #21 Xavier Musketeers with just over half a minute to play. The Musketeers, bolstered by a raucous home crowd, had rallied and now had a chance to run the clock down and take the lead with only seconds remaining. The Friars were on the precipice of a heartbreaking loss. The Friars desperately needed a stop, but they had not been easy to come by down the stretch. Xavier had scored on three of their previous five possessions.
This was a familiar scene for both teams. Last season, Xavier trailed by seven with 73 seconds left in the ballgame. Two quick buckets made it a two-point game in the final seconds. Ed Cooley’s defense couldn’t hold on, and Colby Jones hit a three pointer with a tick left on the clock to give the Musketeers the win.
The Musketeers had someone new this time around. Jack Nunge, the 7-1 center who transferred in from Iowa, became a nuisance for Providence’s defense early on. The Friars had no answer for his size, and it seemed like he could do whatever he wanted on the inside. The big man hit nearly every shot he took from the paint - plus two from deep - and was largely responsible for Nate Watson and Ed Croswell being in foul trouble.
With Watson having recorded four fouls, Ed Cooley could not risk using him against the imposing center for Xavier’s last possession. Fortunately for the luckiest team in the country, Cooley had a defensive ace in his back pocket.
“We knew where the ball’s gonna go,” said Cooley after the game. He put the 6-8 Justin Minaya, also a newcomer to this matchup as a transfer from South Carolina, in man coverage against Nunge in the paint. “We hedged our bet, you know, put him on the guy who was hurting us the most.” Cooley was counting on the player he believed was the best defensive player in the conference to make the stop when his team needed it most.
As Xavier’s Paul Scruggs drove the lane with ten seconds on the clock, Minaya sealed off Nunge and protected against any sort of back door pass. Then, he fell off Nunge to help teammate Al Durham defend Scruggs.
Scruggs put up a shot over the outstretched arms of Durham and Minaya.
The ball hit the glass. It rolled around the rim.
And it missed.
The errant shot fell into the waiting arms of Minaya, his sixth rebound of the game.
Eight seconds on the clock.
Minaya looked ahead and quickly found Durham streaking down the court.
Durham pushed the ball up the floor. He dropped a pass off the Jared Bynum on the right wing. Bynum pumped, then stepped to his left. He was wide open.
It was Providence’s turn to have the late game shot fall.
Xavier’s last heave went out of bounds, and the Friars were victorious. The final score read 65-62.
Cooley was full of praise for his junior point guard.
“All-Americans make those plays.”
The Friars said they wanted to deliver the first punch, and that they did. Providence had five of the first seven buckets of the game and raced out to a 17-5 lead less than seven minutes into the game.
While Providence’s bigs that drew top billing, it was guard Al Durham provided that spark early. He scored 12 of the team’s first 17 points, knocking down two triples and slamming home a fast break dunk. When Durham got cold, the other member of the backcourt heated up. Jared Bynum scored 11 points over the final 14 minutes of the first half.
However, familiar demons returned in a hurry. Providence has struggled to hold leads, and Wednesday night was no exception. After Ed Croswell pushed the lead to 14, Xavier responded with a 15-7 run to cut the deficit to six at the break. Providence led by a score of 35-29.
The Musketeers hung tough and battled with the Friars in the paint. Providence centers Nate Watson and Ed Croswell each recorded two fouls in the first half and Xavier took advantage. Nunge got things done early, scoring eight of their first ten, and Paul Scruggs hit his stride over the back half of the period. Nunge got the final word, drilling his second three-pointer of the frame with two seconds on the clock. Over half of Xavier’s points in the first half came in the paint.
It didn’t take long for Xavier to cut down on that deficit. Just sixty seconds into the second half, Freemantle had pulled the Musketeers with two with back-to-back layups. Nine points from Alyn Breed and Durham, plus a three from Justin Minaya, stretched Providence’s lead back out to seven with less than 15 minutes remaining in the game.
The defenses would begin to settle in after that. There were just six field goals made over the next six minutes as the teams traded baskets. Ed Croswell answered a Jerome Hunter dunk with one of his own with 8:37 to play as the Friars kept Xavier at arms distance.
Scruggs and Freemantle then led a charge for the Musketeers. The two combined for seven points in a row, tying the score at 53. That was the game’s first tie since it was 2-2. Suddenly, a game that had been largely dominated by Providence was anyone’s for the taking with 6:14 remaining. Bynum answered the run with a layup, but Scruggs hit two free throws at the other end to maintain a tie with 5:37 to play.
Noah Horchler hit Providence’s second shot from deep in the half with 5:09 left, giving the Friars back a lead. Al Durham hit two more free throws and to Providence some extra cushion. They would need every bit of it. Scruggs hit a jump shot and Colby Jones stormed down the lane for a dunk to make the score 60-59, and a defensive breakdown led to an open look from deep for Scruggs. He drilled it, and the Musketeers led for the first time with less than a minute to play.
Needing a bucket, the Friars turned to Durham. He drove to the basket and drew a foul with 36 seconds left. Durham calmly sunk both free throws to tie the game at 62. He was a perfect 10-10 from the stripe on the night.
A Providence defensive stop and Jared Bynum transition three later, and the Friars had their 17th win this season. They managed to get that victory despite missing A.J. Reeves for the fifth straight game and with Nate Watson held scoreless for the first time since his freshman year. Their 7-1 Big East record is the best in program history, and it’s good enough to sit atop the conference.
Xavier, meanwhile, fell to 4-4 in Big East play. The Musketeers have now dropped back-to-back games after losing at Marquette last weekend. Their other two conference losses both came to Villanova.
Providence hosts #22 Marquette on Saturday. The Golden Eagles have won seven in a row and handed the Friars their only Big East loss.
Xavier heads to Omaha with a chance to sweep Creighton on Saturday afternoon.