Big time college basketball returned to the Nutmeg State on Saturday, and UConn wasn’t even involved. The Mohegan Sun Arena, which seems to be gaining in national stature every day, is one off two host sites for the James Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic—one off the most prestigious early season college basketball tournaments. UMass, Notre Dame, Florida State and Providence were entered in the Naismith bracket, while Navy, Northeastern, Manhattan and SUNY Binghamton participated in the Springfield bracket in the evening.
In Game One on Saturday at the Mohegan Sun, the Minutemen of UMass, representing the Atlantic 10, dashed off to an early 11-4 lead four minutes into the contest. The Massachusetts lead grew to 10, 21-11, after Dante Clark put down two from the charity stripe midway through the first half. But the rest of the period was all Irish. A trey by Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson, a 6-1 sophomore guard from Mishawaka, Ind., drew the Irish even, 26-26, with four minutes remaining in the first half. Notre Dame, from the ACC, closed out the period on a 5-2 run to take a 31-28 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Jerian Grant, a 6-5 senior guard from Bowie, Md., led the Irish with 13 points, while 6-10 senior center Cady Lalanne led the Minutemen with eight points.
The Irish charged out of the gate in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to take control of the game. By the time Dereck Gordon broke the Notre Dame run with two free throws, the Irish led by seven just a little more than four minutes into the second stanza.
The Irish took a double-digit lead when Jackson knocked down one of two from the line 3:43 into the second half, then upped the advantage to 15, 48-33 at the 12:36 mark and never looked back.
UMass cut the Irish margin to nine on a Lalanne layup with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation, but when Pat Connaughton, who recently joined Notre Dame’s 1,000-point club, drained a trey from downtown Norwich to give the Irish a 68-56 lead with 4:40 left, it looked like smooth sailing for the Irish.
But not so quickly…
A quick trey and two free throws by Clark cut the Notre Dame lead to seven with 4:15 left on the clock. But the Irish bore down and held firm, closing out the game with a 13-8 run for a hard-earned 81-68 victory. With the win, Notre Dame improved to 4-0 and with a 40.5-point average margin of victory. It was the first loss of the year for the Minutemen, who previously earned victories over Siena, Boston College and Manhattan.
It was the first-ever meeting between the Irish and Minutemen.
Game 2 was the most anticipated contest for local basketball fans as it represented the homecoming of Kris Dunn, the 2012 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year from New London High, now a sophomore at Providence. And it showed. The Mohegan Sun Arena seemed more like Friartown than the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence—the Friars’ home court.
And the partisan Providence crowd got their money’s worth as senior forward LaDontae Henton put up a double-double (24 points, 10 boards) to lead the Friars to a resounding 80-54 victory over Florida State. Finally healthy after two frustrating injury filled seasons, Dunn added 15 points and added nine assists, while freshman guard Jalen Lindsey chipped in with 15 points—including 5-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc.
Henton opened up the game with a three-pointer 27 seconds into the game, and Providence raced off to quick 11-0 lead. That was followed by two buckets from Dunn sandwiched around two free throws by Tyler Harris. By the time the Seminoles, who entered the game fresh off a loss to Northeastern and an overall 3-1 record, put one in the hole, the Friars led 14-3. Florida State did not score a basket for the first five minutes of the contest.
The Providence Onslaught continued. Paschal Chukwu, the 7-2 freshman center from Fairfield Prep, entered the game at the five mark and made an immediate impression, swatting the ball away from Seminole center Michael Ojo. Dunn followed with a transition bucket and the Friars led 20-5 with 9:13 remaining in the first half.
A jump hook by Harris gave the Friars a 29-11 lead with just under five minutes left until intermission, and it was starting to look like the remainder of the game would amount to little more than extended junk time. The Friars seemed to t their foot off the pedal for the remainder of the first period, but still led by a healthy 15-point advantage, 34-19, at intermission.
A dominant Providence defense held Florida State to 26 percent shooting, 6-for-23 from the field, including 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. “Defensively I thought we were really, really good,” said PC head coach Ed Cooley . “We were in gaps, we got deflections, we contested shots, we contested the rim. That has to become our identity: our length and our strength and our speed.”
Dunn led the Providence offense, scoring 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Meanwhile, the Friars shot 50 percent from the field (13-for-26) including 3-for-6 from downtown.
The second half proved to me more of the same as what appeared to be an evenly matched contest devolved into a Providence rout. The Friars, who never trailed, spanked their ACC rivals in every aspect, outshooting the Seminoles 54 percent to 39 percent—including a 47 percent to 17 percent advantage from downtown. Providence controlled the offensive and defensive boards, leading to a 32-22 advantage in points in the paint. The Friars, who improved to 4-0 on the season, out-shot the Seminoles from the charity stripe 72 percent to 62 percent, had three more steals (9-6) and 12 more assists (18-6).
In the evening games, Shane Richards scored 24 points to lead Manhattan over Binghamton, 78-63. Willie Rodriguez led the Bearcats with 23 points. In the nightcap, Northeastern stopped Navy 68-44. Scott Eatherton led the Huskies with 19 points—shooting 7-for-11 from the field—while Brandon Venturini scored nine points and Will Kelly had eight for the Midshipmen.
The tournament continues on Sunday with UMass taking on Florida State at noon, and Providence facing Notre Dame in the second game of the Naismith bracket. The UMass-FSU game will be streamed on ESPN3/Watch ESPN, while the Providence-Notre Dame matchup will be televised on ESPN2. Tip-off is slated for 2:30 p.m. ET. Later, Navy will take on Binghamton at 5:30 followed by Manhattan vs. Northeastern at 8 p.m. for the Springfield bracket championship.