Canisius was sensational for the first 27 minutes and gutsy in the last minute against a marquee opponent Saturday in Marine Midland Arena. The other 12 proved to be just enough for Providence to sneak out of town with a win.
The Griffs were outscored, 22-8, in that stretch and it allowed the Friars to escape with a 71-69 victory.
For much of the night, the announced crowd of 4,793 thought it might see just the second Canisius win against a Big East school in the last 18 years. Canisius (5-3) had a 39-34 halftime edge and a pair of eight-point leads in the second half, the last coming when Matt Tribul's jumper with 16:12 left produced a 47-39 advantage.
But Providence switched to a 1-3-1 trapping zone defense and the results were ominous. After Darren Fenn's basket with 14:33 left made it 49-43, the Griffs had no field goals for the next 9:16.
Fenn's two free throws with 13:39 gave Canisius a 51-45 edge, but Providence then exploded.
"It was a victory of courage and tenacity," said Providence coach Pete Gillen, whose club returned just two key players from the team that lost in overtime to national champion Arizona in last spring's NCAA Southeast Regional final. "Canisius is a very good team. Them coming in 5-2 was no fluke."
Freshman forward Ben Perkins led Providence (3-3) with 18 points, while junior guard Kendrick Moore had 16. Jamel Thomas, an athletic 6-foot-6 junior coming soon to an NBA Draft near you, had 15 points and nine rebounds, but shot just 6 of 19 from the field.
Thomas had only two points in the second half, but they came on an emphatic breakaway dunk off a steal of a Jamie Cammaert pass. That gave Providence a 67-59 lead with 1:26 left.
Justin Farley, an Evansville transfer playing his first game for Providence, had 10 of his 12 points in the second half. His three-pointer with 9:24 left put the Friars ahead, 52-51, and was part of a 12-0 streak.
Cammaert led Canisius with 15 points, Kevin Thompson had 13 and point guard Kevin Worley had all 12 of his points in the first half. Fenn came off the bench to chip in a season-high nine points.
Canisius had two chances to tie or go ahead in the final 15 seconds, but didn't get a shot off on either possession.
Thompson's two free throws with 1:18 left and a Cammaert three-pointer with 1:06 to go made it 67-64. The first killer turnover came with Canisius down, 68-66.
Thompson drove the lane and tried to dish around Thomas to Dale Sawyers instead of shooting. Thomas tipped the pass and it went to Moore, who was fouled with 13.4 seconds left.
"In the MAAC, that pass gets through," said coach Mike MacDonald. "But everybody on their roster seems to be 6-7, 205, 210 pounds and all real long."
"I thought Jamel Thomas was coming all the way over to possibly take a charge," Thompson said. "He played the play and I tried to zip it to Dale, but he (Thomas) got his long arm on the ball."
Moore hit two free throws to make it 70-66, but Mike McCarthy drilled a 23-foot rainbow from the left to cut the gap to one with 7.5 seconds left. The Griffs fouled Perkins with 6.7 to go and he made just one of two, but then came Canisius' 12th turnover of the half and the end of its hopes.
Thompson and Worley got crossed up making an exchange at midcourt and McCarthy grabbed the loose ball at the left sideline. But just as he was unleashing an off-balance trey from about 25 feet, he stepped on the sideline with 2.4 seconds left. Canisius didn't get the ball again.
"That's hurting me now," Thompson said of the fumble. ". . . I blame myself. I should have just ran to the ball and grabbed it."
It was a heartbreaking loss for Canisius, which had been slugged by 28 and 27 points by the Friars in Rhode Island the last two years.
"They carve you up. They run plays great," Gillen said. "Mike (MacDonald) has done a marvelous job . . . They're no fun to play against."
The Griffs racked up 51 points in the first 27 minutes before Providence switched to the zone and began to assert itself by extending into the perimeter and preventing passes going uncontested into the low post. The Griffs hit 19 of their first 35 shots, but just 6 of their last 19.
"We couldn't stop them man-to-man," Gillen said. "We did it out of desperation."
"I didn't do a very good job getting these guys ready because we weren't ready for the 1-3-1," MacDonald said. "We've practiced against things like that, but we haven't seen it in a game."
Canisius did get inside the zone a few times, but several shots and tip-ins from close range didn't fall. On the other end, Providence hurt the Griffs by getting 11 of its 19 offensive rebounds in the second half.
"There was a lid on the basket where we couldn't get the ball in," MacDonald said. "Once your offense struggles, your defense tends to follow."
The Griffs are off until playing Dec. 28 at Colgate. The next home game is Jan. 5 against Rider in the Koessler Center.