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Providence downs Xavier in Triple-Overtime Thriller

With their 13th conference win, the myth of the late game Friars grows

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

KenPom’s luck rating measures how a team’s performance in close games compares to what would be expected. The Friars currently rank as the second luckiest team since Ken Pomery started his site. The rating has been a source of derision for Providence fans all season long as analysts have frequently cited it to argue that the Friars are not as good as their record suggests.

It may be time to accept that what Ken is actually measuring may be some kind of supernatural quality. There are few other explanations for the events inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Wednesday night against Xavier.

The Friars rested Al Durham on Sunday at Butler. The Indiana-transfer had been dealing with a sports hernia for a few weeks, and Providence head coach Ed Cooley seemed unsure after the game if Durham would be available again this season.

Just over an hour before tip-off, Providence’s closer, as described by Cooley, was warming up and trying to give it a go despite the injury. Durham was back in the starting lineup. In the first half, he recorded eight points, half of which came from the free throw line in fitting fashion. Durham ranks third in the NCAA in free throws made this season.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed to all come crashing down as Durham hit the deck after a missed layup. Partway through the second half, he took an opportunity to push Xavier’s defense in transition and take the ball from end to end. Fans watched with bated breath as Durham crawled along the baseline to the bench. As he hobbled to the locker room, doubled over in pain, it appeared as though the guard had pushed it too far.

Then, somehow, miraculously, Durham appeared in the tunnel minutes later. He was still in uniform. Cooley motioned him to the scorer’s table as the Friars set up their press, hoping to get a rise from the crowd.

Less than five minutes after sustaining what looked like it could have been a season-ending injury, Durham was back on the floor with just over eight minutes left in the game. And boy, did the Friars need him.

The Friars trailed 54-50 as Durham checked back in. He quickly found A.J. Reeves for a three. After knocking down two more free throws, the lefty dished to Noah Horchler. Another three-pointer. The Friars led by one with four minutes to play.

As the game went back and forth down the stretch, Providence was down by two with under a minute to play. Durham took the ball late in the shot clock and drove down the left side. He planted his feet, spun back, and hit a turnaround floater to tie the game.

It was an unlikely make for Durham, who few expected to still be on the floor after taking a hard fall earlier in the game. Just minutes earlier, it seemed unlikely that any players would still be playing. The drama with Durham’s injury would just be the tip of the iceberg on Wednesday night’s production of Big East basketball.

With under three minutes to play, Xavier’s Dwon Odom hit Providence center Nate Watson with a hard crossover. Watson hit the deck. Odom blew by the falling big man to lay the ball off the glass and in, and Xavier’s lead was extended to three with 2:43 to play. It seemed like the Musketeers had their iconic moment in what could be their biggest win all season.

As all players do after getting embarrassed, Watson looked for an excuse. He pointed to the floor, claiming it was slippery. That’s the reason he fell, not the quicker Xavier guard crossing him up! Likely story.

The Friars called a timeout looking to regroup. As the team huddled, the managers dutifully took to the floor as usual to wipe off any wet spots. This time, they didn’t stop wiping.

This isn’t an unfamiliar sight for Providence fans. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center also plays host to the AHL’s Providence Bruins, and the court is placed down over the ice with protective layers in between. When the building gets too warm, the ice can create condensation on the layers above, including the court. That happened in 2017 when Providence played Marquette on a warm February afternoon. The Friars stormed back late, erasing a 12-point deficit with less than seven minutes to go. That game had to be stopped frequently for the managers to take the floor and wipe off the condensation that had accumulated.

A season later, it happened again. This time, it was too much for the managers to handle, and the game between Providence and Seton Hall was stopped with 13:03 left because the floor was too slippery to manage. The final seven minutes took place on campus at Alumni Hall the next day.

As the officials huddled with Providence Athletic Director Bob Driscoll on Wednesday night, these memories came flooding back into the consciousness of Friar fans. It was unseasonably warm in Providence, RI, with temperatures reaching nearly 70 degrees earlier that day. It seemed like it was happening again.

That’s why fans were confused as players pointed to the ceiling. The floor wasn’t wet because of something from above, it was just condensation. Right? Wrong. Water was leaking through from the roof and falling onto the court around the free throw lines where Watson had fallen before the timeout. As the managers wiped and mopped, Driscoll - who had a ceremony honoring his upcoming retirement at halftime - spoke with building managers to get the situation on the roof resolved.

The break continued as fans were placed on the roof to blow the water away. Administrators and officials discussed the plan if the building could not be fixed. The teams would take buses back to Providence’s campus, where the final few minutes would be finished without fans or cameras.

Thankfully, the water stopped, and the floor was clear. After a short warm-up for the players, the refs blew the whistle, and the game started once more.

In some ways, the biggest shot of the game happened moments later. Providence’s A.J. Reeves uncorked a deep shot to tie the game. On the score sheet, it came on the next possession. In real time, it had been more than 16 minutes since Odom had extended Xavier’s lead. The shot jolted the building back into life as the fans erupted.

The game remained within one possession for the rest of regulation. The Friars got two free throws - one from Durham, one from Watson - while Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle each scored layups before Durham’s shot in the final thirty seconds tied the game.

It was Xavier’s ball with the score even and the shot clock off. That’s the same situation the Musketeers had earlier this season against the Friars. That time, it ended with a stop that turned into a transition three from Jared Bynum to give Providence the win.

With under seven seconds on the clock, Nunge handed the ball to Adam Kunkel while screening his defender, A.J. Reeves. It forced Watson to switch on to the shifty guard, who stepped back and fired a baseline jumper with under five seconds to play. It clanked off front iron. Reeves corralled the rebound, and it was time for overtime.

Xavier scored the first 5 points in the first overtime, all thanks to Nunge and Freemantle yet again. Jared Bynum completed a three-point play at the line, and Justin Minaya tapped in a put-back to tie the game. For the third time in two games, Xavier had the ball in a tied game with a chance for the last shot.

Colby Jones took the pass from Zach Freemantle and drove to the basket. He turned the corner and tried the reverse layup over Al Durham. No dice. The Friars had gotten the stop yet again. Durham pushed over half court, trying for a last shot for the win. He was stripped from behind by Kunkel, who promptly stepped out of bounds. The teams were headed for a second overtime period.

Jared Bynum opened the next extra frame with four consecutive points, but the Musketeers answered with six of their own - four from Scruggs, two from Kunkel. Bynum hit one-of-two from the stripe, then knocked down a mid-range step-back with under a minute on the clock to put the Friars on top. After a miss from Kunkel, the Musketeers were left to foul Providence and play the free throw game.

Al Durham, Providence’s best free throw shooter, fouled out halfway through the second overtime. Xavier targeted his replacement, sophomore Alyn Breed, who had barely attempted a free throw per game all season.

Breed hit his first two free throws. Scruggs answered with a jumper. Breed hit two more. Scruggs got fouled and hit both. Up by one, the Friars were set to inbound with seven seconds left.

Nunge pushed Watson well away from the play while Breed looked to inbound the ball. John Gaffney spotted it, and by rule, that’s a flagrant foul. It was Nunge’s fifth, and it sent Watson to the line for two shots. Watson hit one, and Breed would hit one after he was fouled on the subsequent inbound for Providence.

The Friars were up 88-85 with six seconds on the clock. Scuggs streaked up the floor once again and planted his feet firmly behind the three-point arc. He fired a three.

It banged home right as the buzzer rang. This one needed yet another overtime period.

Without Nunge, Travis Steele was forced to switch to a zone defense. The Friars exploited it immediately, finding Watson down low for a dunk. Alyn Breed hit a floater and Watson notched another basket, but Xavier answered those with scores of their own. Providence led 94-92 when Jared Bynum pulled up from well beyond the three-point arc to give the Friars a five-point lead. It was their largest of the game.

Two free throws from Noah Horchler later and Providence walked away from this three-and-a-half-hour ordeal with a 99-92 victory.

The win was their 13th in Big East play, a new school record. It marked the first time they’ve swept Xavier in the regular season since they joined the Big East. And it was their eleventh win in twelve games decided by five points or less or in overtime.

How have the Friars won nearly every close game this year? Maybe it is luck. Maybe it’s coaching. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s some greater power. With a starter returning from the proverbial dead and water falling from the ceiling, that cannot be ruled out. Whatever it is, Providence has consistently done what it takes to win all season long. That’s why the Friars will be playing for the regular season Big East title against Creighton on Saturday night.

Between a hernia, an indoor rain delay, a flagrant foul, a buzzer beater, and a shot from Pawtucket, Wednesday night was as dramatic as it gets. That’s just how Ed Cooley and the Friars like it.