The Friars controlled the tempo, slowing the game below Kansas’s season average and holding the Jayhawks to 6 fastbreak points. They crashed the boards, collecting 13 offensive rebounds. And they held Ochai Agbaji, a Naismith Player of the Year finalist, to just 5 points, his season low. It was the game the Friars wanted.
It wasn’t enough.
From the opening tip, Providence seemed overwhelmed by the Jayhawks and their athleticism. The Friars struggled to create space on offense and could not get into the flow of their offense.
“They were switching. They were trying to make it hard for us,” said Al Durham after the game.
The result was a familiar one. Like against Virginia, Marquette, and Creighton, Providence shooters had a hard time finding the basket in the first half. The team scored only 17 points through the opening 20 minutes. The shooting splits were grotesque - 20 percent from the field, 7.7 percent from three, and 40 percent from the free throw line. The Jayhawks blocked 7 shots in the half, including 3 from Agbaji. That beat his previous career high of 2, and the Player of the Year candidate would add another block in the second half to finish with 4.
Despite the offensive shortcomings, the defense kept the Friars in it. They held Kansas to just 26 points in the first half and kept Providence within striking distance.
Out of the break, Providence seemed to have adjusted. The defense got a stop on Kansas’s first possession, and Nate Watson worked on David McCormack in the paint for a bucket. That cut the deficit to 7.
The Jayhawks answered immediately. Mitch Lightfoot’s dunk with 14:53 left in the game capped a 10-4 Kansas run and put the Friars down 36-23. With the offense sputtering and Kansas finally finding a groove, it felt like the game was getting away.
The Friars weren’t about to go down without a fight. They just needed somebody to step up.
After two A.J. Reeves free throws, Ed Croswell became the guy. He hit back-to-back layups, giving the Friars a 6-0 run, their largest of the game at that point. After an Agbaji free throw, Croswell bullied his way into the paint for another basket and finished the three-point play at the free throw line.
“I told him at halftime, ‘Be ready. You’re going to do something special in the second half,” said Ed Cooley of Ed Croswell in the postgame presser.
The building was alive. More importantly, the Friars were within 5 points. Providence had a pulse.
Al Durham sliced to the basket and finished a layup over the outstretched arm of David McCormack. A loose ball found Noah Horchler on the wing where he knocked down Providence’s second three of the game. They went back to Horchler on the next possession, and he hit another three from straightaway. Kansas 41, Providence 40. 9:24 on the clock.
Suddenly, the Friars were red hot. The sequence was the first time all game that the Friars made consecutive shots.
Remy Martin got a layup-and-one at the other end to give the Jayhawks a little breathing room, but the Friars against stitched together made baskets. Durham drove and put up a floater that rattled around the rim before falling. Reeves followed up with two more free throws to tie the score at 44 with 7:17 left. Jalen Wilson scored for Kansas, and then Durham responded to tie the game once again. McCormack got fouled and hit one free throw, giving the Jayhawks a 47-46 lead with 6:10 to play.
Once again, it was time for Horchler to play the hero. The big man slipped a screen and drove to the basket. Durham delivered the pass in stride, and Horchler finished at the rim with ease. Providence 48, Kansas 47. Once down and nearly out, the Friars were back. It was their first lead of the game.
The play capped a 25-11 run. After scoring just 17 points in the game’s first 20 minutes, the Friars racked up 25 in just over nine. The team showed the heart it had displayed in the 19-point comeback at Butler. The offense found ways to get easy shots, and players finally started knocking them down. The run whipped the building - and Ed Cooley, the biggest fan of these players - into a frenzy.
Unfortunately, the run also left the Friars exhausted. The Jayhawks took advantage, responding immediately with a 10-2 run punctuated by an alley-oop to Agbaji. Kansas led 57-50 with 2:57 remaining in the game.
A.J. Reeves hit a three to pull the score with four. Watson got a dunk with less than a minute left to keep the Friars within range, and Durham added a pair of layups in the final thirty seconds. It was not enough. The Jayhawks hit enough free throws to walk away with a 66-61 win.
Providence’s season came to a close in the Sweet 16 at the United Center in Chicago. While it ended in defeat, it did not diminish the accomplishments of the team in Ed Cooley’s mind.
“I’m not going to let our men’s heads be down. This was one hell of a season. And we got beat by a great team.”
The Jayhawks are the last remaining No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They will play Miami on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
Remy Martin was the difference maker for Kansas. Martin had been disappointing all season, but he’s found his game lately. The Arizona State-transfer scored 19 points per game over his last two seasons with the Sun Devils and was the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, the reasoning behind that has been evident in the NCAA Tournament. Martin has led his team in scoring in all three games, coming off the bench in each of them. He had 23 points against Providence, his highest total in a Kansas uniform.
Jalen Wilson, the Kansas forward, added a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Providence’s sixth man and Big East Sixth Man of the Year, Jared Bynum, had a disappointing finish to the season. Bynum played just 17 minutes, his lowest playing time when healthy all season. He scored just 2 points on 1-5 shooting, and the Friars were -16 with him on the floor.
Al Durham led the Friars in scoring with 21 points. He averaged 15.6 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Friars finished the game shooting 4-23 from beyond the arc, while Kansas shot just 2-14. They had 13 offensive rebounds, but only 5 second-chance points. The Jayhawks managed 17 second-chance points on just 10 offensive rebounds.