Providence forward Rodney Bullock had to turn off his phone early Friday morning.
Too many texts coming in. Too many beeps and calls. Too many people wanting to say congratulations, to give him the hero treatment.
“I had to get some sleep,” Bullock said, smiling.
But sleep was hard to come by after Bullock’s shockingly open layup in the final seconds lifted the Friars to a 70-69 victory Thursday over Southern Cal in their NCAA Tournament opener. With the Trojans fixated on the Friars’ Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil on the inbounds play, Bullock slipped free to take a pass from Drew Edwards under the basket and score.
Moments later, the Friars were skipping across the PNC Arena court in a madcap celebration. It was the school’s first NCAA victory since 1997 and pushed them into a Saturday second-round game against North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East Region.
Providence coach Ed Cooley was in tears. He knew how much the victory meant to the program, the school, its fans. Just as importantly, he knew how much it meant to Bullock.
“It’s one of those things you dream about for a kid who’s been through so much adversity,” Cooley said Friday.
Bullock, a 6-8 sophomore from Hampton, Va., was not allowed to play his freshman season. In November 2013, Bullock and Brandon Austin, also a freshman basketball player, were accused of sexually assaulting a student on campus and were suspended from the team by Cooley.
The allegations were reviewed by school officials and the suspension upheld for the remainder of the season.
In July 2014, the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, after completing its investigation, announced there would be no charges. A grand jury ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge Bullock and insufficient evidence to present Austin’s case to the grand jury, the Associated Press reported.
Reinstated to the basketball team, Bullock was anxious and excited to get his college career started in 2014-2015. A few days into fall practice, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that would sideline him for the season.
“He’s had a rough go of it,” Cooley said at the time.
It’s one of those things you dream about for a kid who’s been through so much adversity.
Providence coach Ed Cooley on Rodney Bullock
Austin had left Providence, transferring to Oregon. Bullock stayed rather than seeking a new start elsewhere, concentrating on his academics while going through the grueling knee rehab.
On Nov. 14, 2015, Bullock finally played his first game for the Friars, and his 20 points and six rebounds helped Providence to a 76-64 win over Harvard. He went into the NCAA Tournament as the Friars’ third-leading scorer (11.6 points) — behind Bentil and Dunn — and second-leading rebounder (6.8).
Bullock has seven double-doubles before the NCAA Tournament, scoring a season-best 25 points in a Big East road win at Butler, then ranked ninth nationally. He also had a few quiet games when he was a non-factor, going scoreless against Creighton in a January game.
“I’m proud of Rodney and his perseverance,” Cooley said. “Rodney had some issues his first year. Second year, tore his knee up. Had an up-and-down year this year. But he really saved his best for us.”
Bullock had 16 points and 10 boards against USC as the Friars weathered some foul trouble by Dunn in the second half. Bullock had a late 3-pointer that Cooley called critical, giving the Friars the lead, and was active defensively.
And scored the game-winner.
“I’m just blessed to be back and playing again,” Bullock said. “I’ve just grown. Not being able to play, I think I became a better person. I’ve had some ups and downs but my teammates did a great job of keeping me up when I was down.”
His teammates quickly surrounded him Thursday for a group hug. There was a lot of emotion.
“He’s been through a lot and this is really like his freshman season,” Edwards said. “To see him do that, in this game, that was a ‘wow’ for us.”