Every year at NCAA tournament time, one team seems to step out of a fairy tale and into reality. This year it is Providence. As in divine. The Friars, the Southeast Regional's sixth seed, defeated No. 2 Alabama 103-82 and No. 1 Georgetown 88-73 at Louisville's Freedom Hall last week to advance to the Final Four. This is the very same Providence that finished fourth in the Big East's three-team horse race, the Providence led by a point guard, Billy Donovan, who looks like a cross between Beaver and Wally Cleaver. That's why the Friars qualify as this year's—pardon the expression—Cinderella. Because underneath all the soot, despite the harsh times and unglamorous appearances, Cinderella had a beauty not to be denied and a strength forged in the fires of adversity. In Providence's case adversity was an eternitylike 40 minutes against the hard-rock Hoyas of Georgetown.
If you need statistics to gauge Saturday's final, look at two. The first is the scoring line of Darryl Wright, the 6'5" New York City policeman's son who was almost redshirted this season. He put the Hoyas in a straitjacket with 20 points, including 4 for 4 from three-point land, henceforth known as the Friar patch. The other notable stat would be Reggie Williams's 29 minutes. In the 11 minutes the foul-strapped senior All-America was off the floor, Georgetown's young wanna-be's were out-scored 25-12. After Reggie got his third foul on a reach-in with 3:56 left in the first half, Providence stretched a 39-33 advantage to a halftime lead of 54-37.
Georgetown had come back from deficits of five points or more in three previous NCAA games—it trailed Ohio State by 15 in the second half—purely on its will to work, its wearing down of the opposition and that one magnificent player. So this game would not be decided simply by how well Wright shot, or how long Reggie sat. No, the key to Providence's win was its coach, Rick Pitino.
See him now in victory: under the basket, wet-eyed from emotion, red-eyed from fitful sleep, drained and for the moment, happy. Surrounded by the celebration, he can escape real life a little longer. It is well known by now that Pitino's six-month-old son, Daniel, died just before the tournament began. On Saturday afternoon Pitino could watch his players rejoicing, 10 feet tall, snipping the victory cords one by one. His players had comforted him in their own way.
Snip. First there's Donovan, the regional's MVP, who had followed Pitino's directions flawlessly. Against power-packed Alabama, Providence hit 14 of 22 from the Friar patch while the SEC champions oohed and aahed with the rest of the crowd. All season Providence lived by the home run ball. "Pitino embraced it," former Friar and NBA sharpshooter Joey Hassett said, looking on. "He wants them to shoot it. When you're a shooter who knows the coach wants you to shoot..." you thrive.
Pitino knew that Hoya coach John Thompson would have to extend his defense to cover the Friar shooters, Donovan, Delray Brooks and Ernie (Pop) Lewis. "There was nothing else he could do," said Pitino.
Providence had beaten Georgetown once this season with the jump shot. Lewis won with a last-second trey on Jan. 28. But twice more against the Hoyas the Friars had died by the jump shot, most recently in an 84-66 loss in the Big East semifinals when the G'town defenders smothered Donovan and held him to just 11 points. Pitino knew that to beat the Hoyas (29-4 going in) once more—no team had beaten them since Groundhog Day—he would have to move the Friars' game inside. He installed a new offense and the Friars shot 54.3%. Snip.
Next up to cut down the victory net were the big forwards and centers—average height 6'9"—David Kipfer, Steve Wright, Marty Conlon, Darryl Wright, Abdul Shamsid-Deen and Jacek Duda. Big snips. They combined to block 10 shots and score 52 points—all inside paint jobs except for four three-point excursions by D. Wright. There Georgetown was, with its defense extended to the 19'9" line and only 6'4" Perry McDonald and promising 6'7" freshman Anthony Allen inside. That was the very best Georgetown could do inside without Reggie. "Their inside people did a great job, and they forced us to substitute small," said Thompson. Had Thompson substituted big, he would have played right into Pitino's hand. "I respect Providence," said Thompson. "They play the game hard. We tried to turn the corner on them. They wouldn't let us."
Georgetown's frequent substitutions and cheek-to-cheek D normally cause opponents' legs to go syrupy late in games. Pitino guarded against this, too. For the game's first 10 minutes he did not ask Donovan to bring the ball up against the pressure. Pitino wanted Donovan for the end. Billy D would score 20 points, 16 on free throws, and most of those late, when the Friars were salting it away. So expertly coached was Providence that its lead was never threatened in the second half.
But still the game was played out dramatically, a credit to Thompson's style. When you're in against the Hoyas there are no lulls. If the other Final Four teams are relieved because Georgetown was eliminated, they shouldn't be, because Providence under Pitino is playing the game like Georgetown—with a jump shot. The Friars, now 25-8, have lost 15 straight games to Syracuse, their NCAA semifinal opponent, including two in the Big East this season, by a total of 13 points. But that was another Providence.
"People said we were just a three-point shooting team," says Pitino. "And we will take that shot. It's practiced, what we do. But we're more than that." The Friars didn't even try a trey against the Hoyas until 6:13 remained in the first half. Darryl Wright canned it.
Wright grew up in Harlem and starred at Cardinal Hayes High, but he had problems at Providence. "I was immature. Coach is a disciplinarian," he says. "I didn't understand his criticism. I was put off the team. But coach let me back on in November. My family wouldn't let me leave anyway. They said be patient. I knew I could play."
"More than anything, Darryl grew up as a man this season," says Pitino. Real big snip.
Pitino's thoughts were private as he watched the nets being cut down. Then a senior, Kipfer, spotted him and said, "You have to get up here." A smiling Pitino tried to decline. Kipfer insisted. "You get up here," he said. So Pitino climbed up a rickety stepladder and made the final snip. The view from there was great.