PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Providence has been playing close games all season. Now the Friars are finally winning them.
And against a ranked team, no less.
Kadeem Batts scored 25 points and the Friars narrowly won their second straight game after holding a late lead, beating No. 17 Cincinnati 54-50 Wednesday night.
“It’s been an up-and-down season for us,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “In the last three games, we’re starting to show a little bit of consistency, and starting to play better basketball.”
Last Thursday, the Friars (12-11, 4-7 Big East) lost to Connecticut 82-79 in overtime. On Saturday, they blew a nine-point lead with 4:34 left but beat Villanova 55-52 on a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds to go.
And on Wednesday they improved to 1-2 against Top 25 teams after their biggest lead of the game, 47-34 with 6:49 left kept shrinking until it was down to 49-48 on two free throws by Cheikh Mbodj with 2:28 remaining.
“We started off sluggish,” said Sean Kilpatrick, who led the Bearcats (18-5, 6-4) with 13 points. “Then we got in scoring droughts and dug a deeper hole. We could have played 10 times better.”
It was 52-50 when Batts missed two free throws with 13.4 seconds to go and Justin Jackson rebounded for Cincinnati. But Kilpatrick lost the ball on a backcourt violation when it hit his foot with 2 seconds to play when he was pressured by Lee Goldsbrough.
Kilpatrick thought he was fouled by Goldsbrough before losing the ball.
“It happens,” Kilpatrick said. “We weren’t doing the things we practiced.”
Goldsbrough had just six points and four rebounds but made the big play at the end.
“I can’t praise Lee Goldsbrough enough for what he’s done on the ball screen defense,” Cooley said. “Lee was really big today even though you don’t see it in the stats.”
Batts finished the scoring with two free throws after missing seven of his other 10 to complete the Friars 12th game decided by six points or less.
“Like coach says, it’s mental toughness,” Batts said. “I had to focus on seeing the ball going through the rim.”
The Bearcats lost for the second time in seven games and for just the second time in games played away from home. They also lost only the fourth of the 16 games in which they allowed 60 or fewer points.
“We gave up 54 points,” coach Mick Cronin said. “You’ve got to be able to win.”
Providence improved to 4-9 after an 8-2 start, allowing the fewest points in any of their conference games.
“Defense is a mindset. Defense is an attitude. Defense is an approach,” Cooley said. “Our guys have showed that attitude and approach starting on the road at Villanova, brutal place to play, and here against one of the top three teams in our league.”
The Friars led 26-21 at intermission despite a scoreless first half by Bryce Cotton, who entered the game averaging 21.4 points, first in the Big East and sixth in the nation. He went 0-for-4 from the field, all 3-point attempts, in the half.
Cotton, who finished with 11 points, hit two 3-pointers and three free throws in just over three minutes early in the second half, helping the Friars take their 13-point lead.
Then the Bearcats rallied by scoring the next 12 points on a 3-pointer by JaQuon Parker, two free throws and a layup by Kilpatrick, a free throw by Parker and two layups by Shaquille Thomas.
That made it 47-46 with 3:25 remaining.
Vincent Council gave Providence a three-point lead with a 15-footer from the right baseline before Mbodj made his free throws.
Cincinnati’s only leads were 3-0 and 6-6. With the score tied 8-8, Providence scored the next 10 points starting with a followup by Josh Fortune. Goldsbrough hit a layup, Council sank a basket and, Goldsbrough and Batts made layups for an 18-8 lead with 8:29 left in the half.
“I got the ball in good spots,” Batts said. “Our guys were clicking offensively and they got me easy looks inside.”
Kilpatrick stopped the run with a 16-footer from the left for his first basket. Then, after Providence had taken a 22-15 lead, Kilpatrick made consecutive baskets, closing the gap to three points with 1:48 to go.
But Batts hit two short jumpers from the lane before Mbodj finished the first-half scoring with two free throws.