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March Madness cinderella stories: The 1987 Providence NCAA tournament team was one to remember

Providence College Coach Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan, 1987 NCAA Southeast Regional Finals

“I think the other coaches in the Big East will pay more than a passing glance when they pick up their paper and see who the new Providence coach is.”

Big East Commissioner Dave Gavitt was excited about the new face of his old program.

The new face was former-Knicks assistant Rick Pitino. After two seasons in the NBA, Pitino was ready to return to the college ranks where he had previously had success at Boston University.

In just his second year with the Friars, Pitino’s NBA experience would come in handy. Prior to the 1986-87 season, the NCAA adopted the three-point line as an experimental rule. It was a decision panned by many coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who declared that watching teams shoot from deep was “boring.”

The three-point line had been a reality in the NBA since 1979, and the new Providence coach was much more comfortable with it than many of his colleagues. According to Miracles on the Hardwood by John Gasaway, Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo claimed “none of his players had been able to make a single three-point shot in nearly three weeks of practice.

In the 1985-86 season, Pitino’s first in the Ocean State, the Friars finished below .500 in the Big East. They did qualify for the NIT, though, which marked the program’s first postseason appearance since getting bounced by Michigan State in the first round of the 1978 NCAA tournament.

Syracuse University vs Providence College. 1987 NCAA National Semifinals

Providence entered Pitino’s second season predicted to finish sixth in the Big East. They got off to a hot start with a 104-82 victory over American University and quickly established that they were a force to be reckoned with. The opener was one of four 100-point performances for the Friars in non-conference play, including a 113-point performance against Maine, as they cruised to a 9-1 record before playing the Big East.

The Friars blitzed opponents all season, scoring 86.6 points per game with their perimeter attack led by Billy Donavan. The senior guard was all over the stat sheet, averaging 20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game. Behind a starting lineup of Donavan, Indiana-transfer Delray Brooks, Ernie “Pop” Lewis, Davie Kipfer, and Jacek Duda, the Friars put together a historic season.

Providence fully embraced the new three-point line, attempting 19.6 attempts per game from beyond it. Only one other Big East school, Georgetown, averaged more than 10. Their 8.2 made threes per game would rank third in the Big East this season and nearly double the next best school. They scored 2,947 points and hit 280 threes, both still school records. Donovan, Brooks, and Lewis each knocked down more than two threes per game at better than a 40 percent clip.

Against a Big East loaded with talent — Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and St. John’s all spent time in the top 10 that season — Providence notched a 10-6 record, their first winning record since the formation of the conference in 1979. That was good enough for a fourth-place finish.

Providence trounced St. John’s 80-51 in the opening round of the Big East Tournament, thanks to a Big East Tournament-record 34 points from Billy Donovan, which set up a semi-final matchup with Georgetown. The Friars were felled by the Hoyas for the second time in two weeks, and neither meeting was particularly close. Georgetown would go on to win the Big East Tournament the next day and claim a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Friars would receive the 6-seed in the same region as the Hoyas.

The Friars drew the 11-seeded UAB Blazers in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Placed in the Southeast region, to be played in Birmingham, Alabama, the Blazers were playing the opening round in their home venue and favored by a point.

True to their name, the Blazers got off to a fast start. It took Providence nearly four minutes to get on the board, at which point UAB had built a 5-0 lead. Then, the Friars took over. Behind Donovan’s 35 points, the offense lit up the scoreboards and tallied 90 points. Meanwhile, the defense forced 20 turnovers and racked up 20 steals. Despite playing on the road in the NCAA tournament opener, the Friars were bound for a second-round date with the 14-seed Austin Peay Governors.

The Governors weren’t supposed to make the tournament. Their 8-6 conference record landed them the fourth seed in the Ohio Valley Conference, and they knocked off Morehead State, Middle Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky to get a seat at the dance. Austin Peay then stunned the country by beating 3-seeded Illinois, a 14.5-point favorite, in the first round. Up ten with less than six minutes left against Providence, it seemed like the Governors’ Cinderella journey would continue to the Sweet Sixteen.

Then, the Friars came alive.

Providence’s press harassed Austin Peay, their forwards dominated the glass, and Billy Donovan and the Friars staged a 12-2 run to tie the ballgame. Donovan knocked down two shots at the free-throw line, and then Pop Lewis deflected an Austin Peay pass that was corralled by Dave Kipfer before the Governors could get across half court. That set up a wide-open three for Donovan to tie the game with 3:26 remaining. He nailed it.

With under a minute to play, the Friars found themselves down by two. It was Donovan’s time again, this time with the senior hitting a shot from just inside the arc to tie the score again. The Governors attempted a deep three to go ahead with seven seconds left, but the shot missed. Disaster struck on the ensuing rebound, as Delray Brooks fouled Bob Thomas, sending him to the line for one-and-one with two seconds on the clock. Rick Pitino called a timeout to ice the shooter.

It worked.

Thomas missed the front end, and the teams were headed to overtime knotted at 82. The Friars would take the lead in the extra frame and hold on to win 90-87. Providence was headed to the second weekend in Louisville.

Their Sweet Sixteen matchup came against the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide. The Friars would have their way with the SEC champion, scoring 103 points on the way to a 21-point victory. Donovan and Delray Brooks combined for 49 points and shot 10-of-12 from beyond the arc. Providence hit nearly 70 percent of its shots in an offensive explosion that set up a date with Big East rival Georgetown in the Elite Eight.

Providence had upset Georgetown at home thanks to a late three from Pop Lewis, but they struggled mightily in the following two meetings. The Hoyas entered the Elite Eight after dismissing a talented Kansas team with ease.

After making at least ten threes in every game of the tournament, the Friars surprised Georgetown by attacking them inside. The plan worked immediately. Donovan and Brooks attempted one three apiece as Providence gashed Georgetown’s paint defense to the tune of 54 points in the first half.

Nine different Friars recorded multiple assists on the night. Donovan scored 20 points, of which 16 came from the free-throw line, and rotational player Darryl Wright provided the deep scoring with four three-pointers as he notched 20 points as well. The Hoyas committed 27 fouls and sent Providence to the line 38 times, where they made 33 of those shots.

Providence cruised to an 88-73 victory that sent the team to the Final Four in New Orleans for the first time since 1973 and just the second time in school history.

Unfortunately, that’s where this Cinderella story ends. Matched up against another Big East rival in Syracuse, Providence was sent packing. The Orange defeated the Friars for the third time that year after sweeping them in the regular season. Donovan, Brooks, and Lewis shot 3-16 from deep as the offense fell flat, scoring just 63 points.

Syracuse would go on to lose to Indiana in the National Championship two days later.

The Final Four run would launch Rick Pitino back to the NBA, where he was hired as head coach that spring. After a few seasons there, Pitino returned to the NCAA to coach Kentucky, where he won a national title. Pitino’s next NBA stint in Boston was unsuccessful, and he returned to college again to coach Louisville. Pitino brought both success and controversy with him, and he was fired in 2017. After spending time coaching in Greece, Pitino again came back to college basketball with the Iona Gaels, where he coaches today.

Billy Donovan had a brief NBA career with the Utah Jazz after being picked in the 3rd round of the NBA Draft. Donovan would eventually become an assistant coach under Pitino at Kentucky before securing a head coaching job at Marshall. Donovan became the youngest head coach in Division 1 at just 28 years old.

Florida v Dayton Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After two seasons there, Donovan was hired by the Florida Gators. The Gators made the NCAA tournament in just his third season there, starting a streak of nine consecutive appearances that were capped by back-to-back national championships. Donovan left for the NBA in 2015 to become the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. After five seasons there and five postseason appearances, Donovan signed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, where he coaches today.