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Foul-prone Providence can’t keep pace with North Carolina in NCAAs

03.20.16 at 3:31 am ET
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Oh, the opportunity was most definitely there.

While most casual observers of college basketball this season wouldn’t have thought much of the Friars’ chances of knocking off a top-seeded team like North Carolina, Providence coach Ed Cooley mentioned in his radio pregame interview, “When opportunity knocks, don’t ask who it is. Tear the door down.”

And for 25 minutes, the Friars stood toe-to-toe with one of the sport’s true blue-blood programs. In the end however, UNC’s depth and ability to score in the lane, its lights-out performance from the free throw line, and Providence’s inability to connect on open shots brought PC’s season to an end with an 85-66 decision at PNC Arena.

With the loss, the Friars end their season at 24-11. North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, advances to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, where it will face Indiana.

A tightly contested, even chippy first half of play had both teams exchanging leads — UNC up seven at one point, PC up three at another — until the Tar Heels settled in with a four-point cushion (34-30) at halftime. For a second straight game, Friars star Kris Dunn (29 points) was forced to sit for much of the half, picking up a second foul with 11:07 remaining after having scored 10 of his team’s first 14 points.

Providence came out to start the second half with a burst of energy, led by Dunn. Two quick baskets plus a steal from Dunn, and two free throws from Ben Bentil gave the Friars a 36-34 lead with less than a minute gone in the period. But a sign of things to come quickly followed, as Bentil picked up his second foul only 1:15 into the half.

His third foul followed less than a minute later, and all of a sudden a team that needed its two stars to stay on the floor lost the initial aggressiveness displayed in the opening couple of minutes. The Tar Heels pounded the ball inside and took advantage.

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Northeastern beats UMass Lowell to capture first Hockey East title in 28 years

03.19.16 at 9:40 pm ET
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Northeastern celebrates its first Hockey East championship in 28 years. (WEEI.com)

Northeastern celebrates its first Hockey East championship in 28 years. (WEEI.com)

Sometimes the best plays are the ones that don’t go according to plan. And sometimes those plays end 28-year championship droughts. That was the case Saturday night when Northeastern scored the go-ahead goal on a broken play (and broken stick) with 8:57 to go and went on to win 3-2 to capture its first Hockey East tournament title since 1988.

The Huskies were on the power play at the time thanks to a retaliation penalty by UMass Lowell’s Adam Chapie, and they made the River Hawks pay — just not in a conventional way. John Stevens teed up a one-timer from center point, but his stick shattered.

Fortunately for Northeastern, the puck slid right to Zach Aston-Reese, and also caught Lowell goalie Kevin Boyle off-guard. Aston-Reese calmly flipped a backhander past Boyle for a goal that will go down in Northeastern hockey lore as the one that ended decades of trophy-less frustration.

The River Hawks pressed for a late tying goal, but the Huskies kept them off the board. With 1:32 to go, Ryan Ruck made a huge glove save on a Chapie chance from right in front. When the final buzzer sounded, six balcony sections worth of black-and-red-clad students exploded in celebration, as did long-suffering Northeastern fans everywhere.

The win is just the latest step in Northeastern’s unbelievable turnaround this season. After starting the season 1-11-2, the Huskies managed to pull a complete 180 and turn into the hottest team in the country in the second half, with Saturday’s championship extending their winning streak to 13 games and putting their record at 20-1-2 since Dec. 19. It also secured an NCAA tournament berth, their first since 2009.

Lowell was looking for its third Hockey East tournament title in the last four years, but came up a goal short one night after beating Providence in triple overtime in the ninth-longest game in college hockey history. The River Hawks are still headed to the NCAA tournament, though. The selection show is Sunday.

The game started off looking a lot more like Friday’s high-scoring Northeastern-Boston College semifinal than the Lowell-Providence defensive struggle that preceded it. Northeastern got on the board first just 1:12 into the game on a tic-tac-toe passing play from Dylan Sikura to Mike McMurtry to Adam Gaudette for the finish.

Lowell answered two minutes later when John Edwardh collected a loose puck at the side of the net and roofed it over Ruck’s left arm. It took just three more minutes for the Huskies to retake the lead on the power play, though. Nolan Stevens redirected brother John Stevens’ shot from the point and the puck popped off Boyle before landing behind him and bouncing over the line.

The River Hawks settled down after Northeastern’s second goal and started to take control a little bit, going on a 9-3 shots on goal run at one point. They kept pressing and eventually tied the game with 6:26 left in the second when Chapie won a puck battle behind the net and banked a shot off Ruck’s blocker and in.

Northeastern was the better team in the third period, though, and drew two power plays in the frame, including the one that set up Aston-Reese’s game-winning goal.

Northeastern beats BC to reach Hockey East title game for first time since 1988

03.19.16 at 12:57 am ET
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Northeastern will play in the Hockey East championship game for the first time since 1988. The Huskies continued their incredible second-half run by beating Boston College 5-4 Friday night in the conference semifinals to improve to 19-1-2 over their last 22 games. They’ll take on UMass Lowell, who beat Providence in triple overtime in Friday’s first semifinal, in Saturday night’s title game at TD Garden.

Northeastern scored twice late in the first period and added a pair of power-play goals in the second to build up a 4-2 lead. After BC cut it to 4-3, Lincoln Griffin made it 5-3 with 10:16 left in the game when a terrible backwards pass by Colin White sent him in alone on Thatcher Demko. Alex Tuch cut it to 5-4 a minute later, but the Huskies were able to close out the win from there.

The Huskies dominated for lengthy stretches of the game, as they held BC to seven shots on goal through the first 30 minutes and were up 22-11 in shots at the end of the second. The win increases their chances of getting an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament if they don’t win Saturday night, although they’re still not a lock. A win Saturday would guarantee them a spot.

The Eagles couldn’t have asked for a better first shift, as Miles Wood raced down the left side and beat Ryan Ruck five-hole to give them a 1-0 lead just 15 seconds into the game. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the first period was all Northeastern.

The Huskies outshot BC 10-4 in the opening 20 minutes and tied the game at 1-1 with 5:52 left in the period. Nolan Stevens got things going with a great breakout before hitting Zach Aston-Reese with a pass through the neutral zone. Aston-Reese then made a nice move to get around Ian McCoshen before beating Demko low to the glove side.

It appeared the game would remain tied going into the first intermission, but Northeastern took advantage of a late defensive breakdown by BC to make it 2-1 with 0.9 seconds left in the period. Dylan Sikura found Mike McMurtry in the slot, and McMurtry made a heads-up play to pass on the shot and find Adam Gaudette wide open at the right post for an easy tap-in.

BC responded just 1:10 into the second with Matthew Gaudreau made a nice pass from behind the net to find White for the freshman’s 19th goal of the season. But just like the first period, Northeastern then took control after BC’s goal.

The Huskies took a 3-2 lead on the power play just 1:45 later when Nolan Stevens rushed down the left side, dragged around McCoshen and fired a shot blocker-side for his 18th goal of the season. Northeastern’s power play struck again eight minutes later when Eric Williams walked in from the point and ripped a slap shot glove-side.

The Eagles cut the lead to 4-3 with a power-play goal of their own with 6:06 left in the second. Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald made a nice pass to find Wood at the right post and Wood’s shot just squeaked through Ruck’s pads for his second goal of the game.

The Eagles were already locked into the NCAA tournament before Friday and will now wait for Sunday’s selection show to see where they’ll be for regionals next weekend.

Lowell beats Providence in triple OT to advance to Hockey East title game

03.18.16 at 9:45 pm ET
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One of the longest games in college hockey history is sure to stir up some debate thanks to the way it ended. With 7:33 remaining in the third overtime, UMass Lowell’s Michael Fallon threw a pass to the front that deflected off A.J. White’s skate and in. The play was immediately called no-goal on the ice due to a kicking motion, but the officials overturned it and ruled good goal after a lengthy review because White only directed the puck with his skate and didn’t make a “distinct kicking motion,” which is the requirement to wave off a goal.

That call gave the River Hawks a 2-1 win over Providence and a trip to their fourth straight Hockey East championship game. At 112:27, the game finished as the ninth-longest in Division I college hockey history and the second-longest in Hockey East history. Lowell will face the winner of Friday night’s second semifinal between Boston College and Northeastern in Saturday night’s conference title game.

“I don’t want to question the referees. He was pretty adamant calling it off from the start,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said of the game-deciding review. “It’s just a grey area in our game. It’s really grey. I think half the coaches in our league would watch that play and say that’s definitely a kicking motion and half would say no way. … I don’t know the difference between a direct and a kick, to be honest with you.”

Providence’s Trevor Mingoia nearly ended the game 4:02 into the first overtime when he took a pass from Erik Foley and rang a shot off the left post. Four minutes later Lowell hit a post of its own as C.J. Smith tipped Tommy Panico’s shot from the point.

Each team had a decent chance toward the end of the first overtime as well. With 3:13 remaining, Adam Chapie rushed in off a neutral zone turnover and flipped a backhander on net from in close that Nick Ellis turned aside with his blocker. A minute later, Mingoia had a quick one-on-one against Lowell goalie Kevin Boyle, but Boyle poked the puck away as Mingoia went to his backhand.

Providence’s Mark Jankowski had two good chances in the second overtime. The first was on a wraparound that Boyle just got his stick on. Then he had a shot from the slot that hit the top of the crossbar and deflected out of play. Lowell’s best chance in the second overtime came with 8:15 to go when Chapie cut inside a defenseman and streaked in alone, but he put the shot wide.

The River Hawks had the best chances in the third overtime. White had a backhander from in close, Michael Louria had a redirect from right in front, and Jake Kamrass and Nick Master both had good looks off nice setup passes from Chapie. But Ellis turned away all of them before finally getting beat on White’s game-winning redirect.

Ellis finished with 42 saves, while Boyle had 58.

“We’re very excited to be moving on to the championship game,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “It was a good couple games out there. There were a lot of momentum shifts and I thought the guys did a good job staying with the process. We’re very excited.”

Lowell had a chance to take a 2-1 lead with under six minutes left in regulation when a bad change by the Friars led to a two-on-one. Kamrass centered for a charging Tyler Mueller, but Mueller had to take a split second to settle the puck before shooting, allowing Ellis to get across and make a huge pad save.

Providence had a chance with a minute and a half to go when Jankowski’s shot bounced off the end boards right to Mingoia, who threw a shot on net that Boyle just got his pad on. Then the game opened up in the final minute, with Lowell’s Michael Kapla making a big block on a Brian Pinho shot on a 4-on-3 that led to a River Hawks rush the other way, only to have Pinho hustle all the way back and intercept a pass in the slot to end that chance.

The Friars opened the scoring 6:38 into the game. A few seconds after Lowell’s Dylan Zink cleared a puck off the goal line, Providence freshman defenseman Vincent Desharnais held at the right point before shooting through heavy traffic and beating Boyle for his first collegiate goal.

After mustering just two shots on goal through the first 15 minutes of the game, the River Hawks finally got some offensive zone time in the final few minutes of the period. It paid off with a tying goal with 1:06 to go when Smith made a great move around Kevin Rooney before sliding a shot under Ellis’ pad for his 17th goal of the season.

Each team had 10 shots on goal in the second period, but neither was able to add a goal. The best chance of the period came early on when White found Louria alone in front, but Ellis came up with a big save.

Friendships set aside as Friars prep for Tar Heels

03.18.16 at 8:22 pm ET
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Ed Cooley leads Providence into an NCAA Tournament second-round game against North Carolina on Saturday night. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

Ed Cooley leads Providence into an NCAA Tournament second-round game against North Carolina on Saturday night. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Certainly Ed Cooley has as much respect for North Carolina’s Roy Williams as he has for any coach in the business. Williams, inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, deserves as much.

But when Cooley tells you he’s “friends” with the Hall of Famer, he means it. And so does Williams, who likewise expresses his fondness for Cooley. The two have their mutual admiration society friendship, and perhaps a couple of other things on the line Saturday night (9:50 p.m. tip-off, 9:15 broadcast on 103.7 WEEI-FM) when the Friars face the top-seeded Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament’s second round at PNC Arena.

“Eddie is a good friend. He’s a good guy,” Williams said Friday afternoon, with his team preparing for Providence. “I enjoy him. But he’s probably the worst I’ve ever seen in my life in a yoga class. Other than that, he’s a good friend and we enjoy each other. Ask Eddie about the yoga class.”

Naturally, we took the bait.

“Wow, that’s funny,” was Cooley’s reply. “We were in Hawaii together on a Nike trip and my wife asked me to take yoga for the first time in my life. At that point, I was about 370 pounds. I’ll never try it again. I am the worst yoga participant in the history of that exercise. And Coach [Williams] lets me know about it every time he sees me. That’s funny.”

All kidding aside, each knows he and his team have their hands full in trying to stop or slow down the other. For Providence, you can add a nearly full house of hometown fans on hand as well, with UNC’s Chapel Hill campus a mere 20 minutes away. For a second straight year, the Friars face a virtual home-court disadvantage at a neutral site.

“It’s a great challenge,” Cooley said. “We’ve played in tough venues before, we’ve played in front of 15,000-20,000 people. But now, it’s just you’re playing for bigger stakes. You don’t complain about it, you just try to maximize the opportunity.”

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BC women’s hockey beats Clarkson in OT to advance to national title game, remain perfect

03.18.16 at 6:49 pm ET
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The Boston College women’s hockey team hadn’t trailed by two goals all season, so trailing Clarkson 2-0 midway through Friday’s national semifinal was not a position they’re used to being in. But the Eagles came back, tied the game with 3:53 left in regulation and then won in overtime to advance to Sunday’s national championship game and improve to 40-0-0 on the season.

Senior Haley Skarupa scored her 34th goal of the season to cut Clarkson’s lead to 2-1 with 5:28 left in the second, then classmate Kaliya Johnson scored late in regulation to force overtime. It didn’t take long for BC to end the game in the extra session, as Skarupa one-timed a pass from Alex Carpenter past Clarkson goalie Shea Tiley just 58 seconds in.

The Eagles will face the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between Wisconsin and Minnesota in Sunday’s national title game at the Whittemore Center in Durham, New Hampshire. BC is trying to become the second women’s hockey team ever to complete a perfect season.

Providences marches on with last-second win over USC

03.18.16 at 7:02 am ET
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Providence coach Ed Cooley put it best.

“That was March Madness at its best,” Cooley said in his opening postgame comments, after his Friars came from behind to defeat Southern Cal, 70-69, late Thursday night at PNC Arena on a last-second layup by Rodney Bullock. With the win, PC advances to the NCAA Tournament’s second round Saturday night against North Carolina, the top seed in the East Regional.

First things first, however. Indeed, it was March Madness at its best. But the finish was only for the strong-hearted. Trailing by one at halftime after leading by seven points in the first half, the Friars suddenly turned a cold shoulder to the USC defense. A 15-7 run by the Trojans erased a one-point PC lead and had USC ahead by seven, 60-53, with 7:38 remaining, after a baseline drive for a dunk from All-Pac-12 guard Julian Jacobs.

While the 3-point shot fell off and on for the Friars all night long, key 3’s kept them close to USC for the final, frantic seconds. Kyron Cartwright popped one to pull his team within four. Following a Drew Edwards jumper, Bullock knocked home another for a 61-60 Providence lead with 5:59 remaining.

USC’s offense was tough to handle, however. Jordan McLaughlin responded with a jump shot of his own, followed by a steal, a missed layup and then an assist to freshman big man Bennie Boatwright for another, giving the Trojans a 64-61 lead with 4:09 to play. After two free throws from Nikola Jovanovic made it 66-61, Kris Dunn buried a jump shot to keep the Friars within three.

Again, Southern Cal responded with relentless effort by going to the basket and getting to the line. Two Katin Reinhardt free throws put the Trojans back up by five, until Dunn found Ben Bentil (19 points, 9 rebounds) for a dunk, then wound up for a deep trey (his third of the half) to pull the Friars even at 68-68 with just 1:27 remaining.

The final nerve-wracking 90 seconds was the stuff March Madness has produced seemingly every year. This year is no exception. Boatwright made one of two free throws with less than a minute to play, and after the teams exchanged possessions USC’s Elijah Stewart had a chance to put PC away at the line.

He missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Jacobs also missed the front end of a one-and-one with just 12 ticks left. Providence secured the rebound, Dunn missed a jumper and the Friars retained possession as the ball went out of bounds. With three seconds remaining, Edwards waited patiently to inbound the ball from the baseline, and found Bullock after a double screen under the basket for a game-winning layup with 1.5 seconds left.

A halfcourt heave by USC fell short, and just like that the Friars had their first NCAA Tournament win in 19 years.

“Kris and Ben took a lot of the attention away,” Bullock said in describing the last play. “I guess Drew saw me and made a great play and I just finished it.”

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Holy Cross edges Southern in NCAA First Four game

03.16.16 at 9:33 pm ET
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Robert Champion celebrates Holy Cross' NCAA Tournament victory over Southern. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Robert Champion celebrates Holy Cross’ NCAA Tournament victory over Southern. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Robert Champion hit 6-of-8 shots en route to a game-high 19 points and Holy Cross continued its improbable postseason run with a 59-55 victory over Southern in an NCAA Tournament First Four game Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio.

The Crusaders, who began the night with a 14-19 record, the worst of any team in the tournament, have won five straight. The first four came in the Patriot League tournament, as they won the title as a 9 seed (of 10 teams). Now as a 16 seed, they advance to play the West Region’s top seed, Oregon. That game is Friday in Spokane, Washington.

Point guard Anthony Thompson added 12 points for the Crusaders, while forward Malachi Alexander contributed seven points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

Adrian Rodgers had a team-high 14 points for Southern (22-13), but he was just 1-of-7 from behind the arc. As a team, the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Jaguars hit just 3-of-20 treys.

Holy Cross jumped out to an early 12-point lead and took a 27-22 advantage into the locker room. Southern opened the second half on a 7-1 run to take its first lead of the night at 29-28 on a Rodgers jumper 4 1/2 minutes into the period. The game stayed tight the rest of the way.

With just under a minute to play and the game tied at 52, Champion nailed a long 3-pointer to give Holy Cross the lead for good. Champion and Cullen Hamilton each hit two free throws in the final 30 seconds to keep Southern out of reach.

The win was Holy Cross’ first in NCAA Tournament play since 1953.

Providence ready for USC, reputation boost

03.16.16 at 8:13 pm ET
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Talk is cheap, sure. Excuses are cheaper. For the Providence Friars, they know there are no more excuses when it comes to postseason play.

It has been 19 years since Providence last won a game in the NCAA Tournament, a 71-65 decision over Tennessee-Chattanooga on March 21, 1997. It was a Sweet 16 game against the Mocs in Birmingham, Alabama, and the win led to a memorable contest against eventual national champ Arizona two days later — a game the Friars dropped in overtime (96-92).

Since then, Providence has been in the NCAAs four times (2001, 2004, 2014 and 2015), with four straight first-round knockouts. The current team can only lay claim to having been a part of one of those defeats, last year in Columbus, Ohio, to Dayton, but these Friars are aware of the perception.

Regular-season success? Postseason failure.

“From a programmatic development standpoint, this is our fifth year running this organization, and to continue to move our program forward we need to try to advance in this tournament in order to build our brand and our program,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “We want our program to be one of the elite schools in the country.”

Despite losses the past two years, it hasn’t been all bad for the Friars, however. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Providence is 7-9 in tournament play, 4-5 as the lower-seeded team. That’s where this PC team stands going in as a No. 9 seed against eighth-seeded Southern Cal. The seven wins, however, have come over just two years — 1987 (four wins on the way to the Final Four) and 1997 (three wins to the Elite Eight).

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BC’s Thatcher Demko, Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, UNH’s Andrew Poturalski among 10 Hobey Baker finalists

03.16.16 at 12:34 pm ET
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Boston College junior goalie Thatcher Demko, Harvard senior forward Jimmy Vesey and New Hampshire sophomore forward Andrew Poturalski are three of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which honors college hockey’s top player.

Demko, a Vancouver Canucks draft pick, is tied for first in the country with a .938 save percentage and leads the country with 10 shutouts, which is a school record. He has a 25-6-4 record and helped lead BC to a share of the Hockey East regular-season title.

Vesey, a Nashville Predators draft pick, is a finalist for the second year in a row, as he made it to the Hobey Hat Trick last year before losing out to Boston University’s Jack Eichel. He has 23 goals and 21 assists in 30 games, putting him third in the country in goals per game and tied for third in points per game.

Poturalski, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes after UNH’s season ended last week, had 22 goals and 30 assists in 37 games, tying him for sixth in the country in points per game.

Yale goalie Alex Lyon is also a finalist, as are Michigan linemates Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte. Robert Morris forward Zac Lynch, Michigan Tech forward Alex Petan and St. Cloud State defenseman Ethan Prow round out the top 10.

Connor, who leads the country in both goals and points, should be the favorite to win the Hobey, but Demko and Vesey would be the two players joining him in the Hobey Hat Trick if it were up to this writer.

If you’re interested in more college hockey awards talk, as well as a preview of Friday’s Hockey East semifinals, check out this week’s College Puckcast:

College Puckcast – Hockey East championship weekend preview, postseason awards with Ryan Lambert

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