One layup released nearly two decades of pent-up frustration for Providence.
Rodney Bullock’s basket with 1.5 seconds left lifted the ninth-seeded Friars to a 70-69 victory over eighth-seeded Southern California on Thursday night at PNC Arena and secured Providence its first NCAA tournament triumph since 1997.
Bullock was wide open near the basket for Drew Edwards’ inbound pass along the baseline and had little trouble putting the Friars up by 1 (24-10) after a closing stretch that proved vexing for both teams. The Trojans’ frantic final shot sailed away from the basket, and the Providence bench promptly emptied onto the floor.
“On this stage, to end the game like that, that’s that one shining moment our kids are really going to look forward to the rest of their lives,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.
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Ben Bentil had 19 points and both Bullock and Kris Dunn scored 16 points for the Friars, who will meet top-seeded North Carolina (29-6) in Saturday’s second round. The Tar Heels defeated Florida Gulf Coast 83-67 in Thursday evening’s early game.
The Trojans (21-13), who were making their first NCAA appearance since 2011, got a team-high 15 points from guard Jordan McLaughlin.
Providence trailed by as many as seven in the second half and Dunn – one of the top talents in college basketball – sat with foul trouble in both halves. Southern California led 68-63 with 2:41 to go, but imploded with turnovers, poor shot selection and missed free throws in the closing possessions.
Twice, the Trojans went to the foul line to shoot a one-and-one with a 69-68 lead. Both times, they missed the front end, but Providence struggled to convert at the other end.
After a Dunn miss went out of bounds, Cooley subbed Edwards in to handle the inbound pass. The ensuing play was designed for Dunn or Bentil, with the option of taking what the defense provided if neither was open.
That turned out to be Bullock, who played all 40 minutes and had 10 rebounds.
“I was supposed to curl off Kris and I guess both of the defenders went with Kris,” Bullock said. “When I slipped off, I was wide open under the basket.”
The miscue cost Southern California its first victory in the NCAA tournament since 2009.
“It looked like we took their first and second option away, but one of our players made a mistake,” Southern California coach Andy Enfield said. “The inbound was supposed to be under the basket and that’s not supposed to happen. They anticipated something else because it was maybe four seconds that it took to get that pass in. It’s one of those things where they made a great play and we made a mistake.”
Thursday night represented a significant breakthrough for the Friars, who have become NCAA regulars for the first time in decades under Cooley. Providence earned an NCAA bid for the third consecutive season this year, the first time it has done so since 1972-74. But the Friars were still winless in the tournament since God Shammgod led them in a run to the Elite Eight in 1997.
Providence lost to North Carolina in the first round two years ago and to Dayton last season. This time, things were different.
“I know what it’s like to be on the other end, and the fact we’re advancing is just amazing. …,” Dunn said. “I think Providence College has a whole and as a community has been waiting for a moment like this, and I’m just happy and appreciative to give them something like that.”
Dunn was stunned when he picked up his fourth foul with 7:03 to go, and it sent him to the bench for nearly four minutes. His teammates quickly erased a four-point hole to go up 61-60 thanks to a Bullock 3-pointer, but the Trojans rattled off a 6-0 spurt to retake the lead.
Dunn tied it at 68 with a 3-pointer with 1:27 remaining, but Southern California reclaimed the lead with 58.7 seconds to go when Bennie Boatwright split two free throws. Both teams missed shots down the stretch – Providence from the floor, Southern California from the line – before Bullock’s layup secured the victory.
“I still can’t believe we won the game,” Cooley said. “I don’t think we played well. We did get frustrated and we were in foul trouble. But at the same time, I thought the guys were resilient and played with some poise.”