PROVIDENCE – How do you cure those Friar blues? Answer: a visit from the Scarlet Knights.
Despite playing two very uneven halves Wednesday night, Providence was able to secure a rare Big East triumph at the expense of Rutgers, 78-67. The win snaps a four-game losing streak for the Friars, who placed five players in double figures led by strong performances from Bilal Dixon (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Vincent Council (11 points, 14 assists).
“I thought today was our day,” said a clearly-relieved Ed Cooley, his Friars now 2-8 in the league and 13-10 overall.
It was the Friars’ time because Cooley’s team owned the Scarlet Knights in the opening 20 minutes — Council had 11 points and 10 assists at the break — and at the end of the 40-minute session after the visitors closed to within four points (64-60) with 2:38 remaining. For one of the rare times this conference season, Providence did not completely unravel after an opponent once again gathered momentum to the point that Cooley had to wonder if his team had enough bullets left in the holster.
The Friars were able to answer every charge from Rutgers, the first one coming after the Scarlet Knights crept to within 56-52 after trailing 45-32 at 15:56 of the second stanza. A reverse layup by Gerard Coleman (15 points) was followed by a steal at midcourt by LaDontae Henton (15 points, nine rebounds) that led to two free throws by Coleman. The sophomore continued to leave his imprint on The Dunk’s hardwood after finding Dixon for a two-handed slam that made it a 62-54 game with 5:16 left.
Rutgers (12-11 overall, 4-6 in the Big East) registered six of the game’s next eight points before some timely shooting off the fingertips of Bryce Cotton (17 points) enabled the Friars to put some distance between themselves and their foe. Cotton’s fourth trey, coming at 2:15, made it 67-60. His fifth make from downtown, which came in front of PC’s bench after Dixon correctly set a screen, upped the lead to double figures at 1:54.
“The two threes at the end, really timely shots,” noted Cooley. “The second make, (Cotton) surprised me by shooting it. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me because I wanted him to bring it out. When he did make it, I was like ‘great shot, great call from the bench.’”
While contributions from Council, Cotton, Henton and Coleman have been the norm this season, Dixon’s ability to provide the Friars with a much-needed spark down on the blocks was one of the main reasons why PC was able to hold on. Dixon went on to tie a career high in points while adding five blocks in 32 minutes.
The fact Dixon, a New Jersey native, was able to have his big night at the expense of a team hailing from the Garden State was not lost on the player.
“I felt my time would come and my time was today,” Dixon said with a grin.
“He was a man amongst boys tonight with our guys,” said Rutgers head coach Mike Rice about Dixon.
The worst-kept secret was made official a few hours prior to Tuesday’s game as Providence officially announced the addition of 6-foot-9 forward Sidiki Johnson. A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Johnson will officially take the floor for the Friars next December following the conclusion of the first semester. He will have 2 ½ years of eligibility remaining after beginning the season as a freshman at Arizona.
Dave Telep, the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com, mentioned that Johnson could blossom into quite the catch for Cooley and the Friars.
“Size is at a premium and Sidiki is good in the lane. If he's focused he could develop into a rotation big man for the Friars,” wrote Telep in an email. “The thing about transfers is there are a finite amount of chances. He has talent; we’ve always known that. Now it’s time to take advantage of the downtime afforded by the transfer, lock in and make sure he's ready to play to his abilities next season.”
Johnson, who logged just seven minutes in four games with Sean Miller’s Wildcats, has already settled in on PC’s campus with Cooley noting that his newest player “was in class (Wednesday) and was on time.” Johnson sat behind PC’s bench during the Rutgers game alongside freshman guard Kiwi Gardner, who was ruled a nonqualifier by the NCAA back in December.
“In Sidiki we have someone who we feel confident that can help us continue to raise our profile nationally,” Cooley said, mentioning Johnson will join a class that includes Providence native Ricky Ledo along with fellow guard Kris Dunn and Josh Fortune. “We’re really proud to have him as part of our family.”
Johnson represents the first true big man added by Cooley and his staff. The Friars remain very much in the running for Monroe (N.Y) College’s Orlando Sanchez, a 6-9, 205-pounder who is regarded in many circles as the country’s top JUCO big man.