NEW YORK – As one Cincinnati make after another settled into the nets at Madison Square Garden Wednesday, the frustration level in Kadeem Batts seemed to rise by the minute.
The Bearcats, desperate for a win that would keep them in the NCAA Tournament mix, were playing loose and free.
On the flip side, Batts and his Providence College teammates were tight and resembled the unit that got off to a dreadful 2-7 start in Big East play – not the one that closed the regular season white-hot with seven wins in nine tries.
“You’re always going to face adversity during the game, but our mindset was to keep fighting,” said Batts, Providence’s junior forward. “They were hitting a lot of big shots and getting stops.”
In the PC huddle, head coach Ed Cooley kept preaching patience. Keep defending, keep shooting, keep believing. Nothing seemed to curb Cincinnati, not even when the Friars switched from man-to-man defense to zone.
Playing like timid little kittens during a frighteningly bad start, Providence was ushered out of the Big East Tournament by a determined Cincinnati squad, 61-44. The Friars trudge back to campus with the hope that a 17-14 record is good enough to earn a spot in the National Invitational Tournament.
While the Bearcats are still very much in the NCAA discussion after securing their 22nd victory, a win over top-seeded Georgetown on Thursday would figure to go a long way in solidifying a spot in the field of 68.
Providence, which missed 11 of its first 12 shots from the floor, finished shooting an abysmal 28.1 percent. Batts was the high man with 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting against the same Bearcats’ outfit that saw the Big East Co-Most Improved Player of the Year spring for 25 points and nine rebounds when the two teams met at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Feb. 6.
Wednesday’s rematch saw Cincinnati confront Batts with a double team virtually every time he caught the ball on the blocks. He ended the first half with one field goal and four points – two low totals that spoke volumes about just how determined the Bearcats were in cutting off one of PC’s main power sources.
“They threw a lot of pressure at me, but I tried to play as hard as I can,” said Batts as he sat in PC’s temporary locker room. “It was definitely a physical game.”
“We tried to take them out of their rhythm so they couldn’t get Batts the ball whenever they wanted,” said Bearcats coach Mick Cronin. “He does such a good job of dissecting you with the set plays that we tried to make sure we committed to not let him get comfortable.”
Cooley downplayed Cincinnati’s course of action on Batts, instead lamenting the number of open looks his team let slip through the cracks. By the coach’s estimation, 12 of the 16 three-pointers that PC attempted “were open and uncontested.” Knocking them down proved to be another story, as the Friars managed just one make from downtown.
The Bearcats (22-10) came out of the gates looking like a team desperate for an NCAA bid and took it to the Friars hard. Center Cheikh Mbodj set the tone early with three blocks in the first seven minutes, two of the rejections coming at the expense of Vincent Council. Back-to-back 3-point makes by Jaquon Parker pinned the Friars in a stunningly 26-8 hole.
“We found ourselves fighting to get back in the game,” stated Council matter-of-factly.
Added Cooley, “The start hurt us, but I don’t think the start won the game for them. I thought the 40 minutes bothered us more than anything.”
PC’s combination of awful offense and porous defense didn’t subside until right before halftime. A 12-3 surge helped get the Friars to within shouting distance at halftime, and while the fact Providence only trailed by 31-23 after spending just about all of the opening 20 minutes in a deep fog had to be considered a minor victory, there were plenty of signs that Cincinnati was not going to completely relinquish control on this day.
Four quick points to start the second half brought PC to within the doorstep at 31-27 after LaDontae Henton scored off an offensive rebound and Bryce Cotton got free for one of the few uncontested scores the Friars notched.
But Cincinnati managed to remain in control with a floater in the lane off the fingertips of Shaquille Thomas, making it 43-33 with under seven minutes remaining.
With Providence still in the game, trailing by seven with 4:24 left, Parker pulled down an offensive rebound and converted a 3-point play that gave Cincinnati a 49-39 lead and essentially put the game away. Sean Kilpatrick paced the victors with 17 points, while Parker added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
While the Bearcats did the job in limiting Batts, they also silenced Cotton to the tune of 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Henton was also hardly heard from, hitting four of 15 shots for eight points.
Earlier in the week, Cooley spoke about taking the next step in PC’s program; i.e., a lengthy stay in New York City. Instead, the Friars are one-and-done for the fourth straight year. Providence now has a 1-9 Big East Tournament record over the past decade and two wins in its last 14 appearances.
“Our program has to grow, but (Wednesday) is not indicative of the future for us,” Cooley said. “We just had a bad game and (Cincinnati) played well. Unfortunately, it’s a tournament game, so you pack your bags and go home.”