The bags are packed for Hawaii and the luggage includes some newfound momentum.
The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team earned its best win of the season Sunday over West Virginia at Mohegan Sun and now heads to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu feeling better than it has all season.
“That was a big win for us. It definitely boosted our confidence a lot,” junior guard Jeff Dowtin said. “We played a great game. Everybody was clicking on all cylinders – rebounding, shooting and defense. We can’t dwell on that too long, though. We’ve got a nice trip coming up this weekend.”
The Rams were set to depart Thursday for Christmas – and hoops – in paradise. Making their debut appearance in the tournament, the Rams open play Saturday against Bucknell at 10 p.m. Eastern time, the first of three games in four days. All games will be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.
“I think it’ll be a great experience for these guys,” head coach David Cox said. “Obviously, it’s tough being away from home, from your families on Christmas. This is probably the next best thing. We’ll go to a beautiful island where these guys have never been before. We’ll probably have a day or day and a half to find our way around the island and do some fun things. And then it’s also a business trip and they get to play some basketball, as well. It’s like the best of both worlds.”
Going with a win streak is even better. The Rams alternated wins and losses through their first seven games. Following the loss to Providence College, URI’s victory over Holy Cross Dec. 8 offered positive signs about the young squad’s direction.
Against West Virginia, the Rams stayed on that path and picked up speed. They won 83-70 over the Big 12’s Mountaineers, rising to the challenge posed by an athletic, physical team. While the Mountaineers have been on their own up-and-down ride this season – and were missing standout big man Sagaba Konate on Sunday – URI was free to celebrate the performance. The Providence game had indicated the Rams might struggle when they didn’t have an advantage in athleticism and strength. In their next chance against that kind of team, URI was up to the task.
“I thought the guys stuck to the game plan on both ends of the floor,” Cox said. “We had a game plan going in offensively of attacking their pressure, and in the halfcourt, attacking their overplaying with some backdoor cuts and some passing. Defensively, I thought we did exactly what we were trying to do throughout the game. So I guess I’m really proud of their focus and their concentration on the scout. That’s a sign of maturity.”
The Rams finished with their second-best point total of the season and scored 1.05 points per possession, their fourth-best mark. They shot 47 percent from the field and made five of 17 3-pointers. All five starters scored in double figures, with Dowtin and Fatts Russell tallying 18 each.
“After the Brown game, I thought that was the first sign of real improvement, in terms of moving the basketball and trusting each other, even though we didn’t shoot the ball that well then,” Cox said. “The Holy Cross game, I thought you saw another step, another level of improvement. We still didn’t shoot the ball that well, but we were taking the right shots and we were moving the ball around. And then, our last game, everything was clicking. We were passing the ball. We had 17 assists. We were making the extra passes. We were touching the paint, spraying it around. And guys were stepping into shots confidently, and we shot the ball much better, not necessarily from 3, but all around.”
Defense remained elite, with URI holding West Virginia to 32 percent shooting.
In all, it was the kind of game the Rams always believed they could deliver, even if it didn’t always show early in the season.
“We always knew what we could do as a team, but we kind of showed everybody what we could do, finally,” Russell said. “Everybody played well. That’s a good sign for us.”
With the Hawaii trip looming, the Rams had already turned the page at Tuesday’s practice, prepping for a Bucknell team that is a perennial contender in the mid-major ranks. The Bison are 4-4 so far this season, with a win over St. Bonaventure. Last weekend, they lost by just two points to No. 15 Ohio State.
The winner of Saturday’s game will face the winner of the first-round matchup between TCU and Charlotte. The Horned Frogs are a potential tournament favorite with an 8-1 record and a spot in the top 30 of the KenPom national rankings. A third opponent will come from the pool of Indiana State, UNLV, Colorado and Hawaii.
The team will celebrate Christmas together on the trip, and will have some opportunities to enjoy the scenery.
“They said something about snorkeling,” Dowtin said with a laugh. “I don’t know – I don’t do too much of that.”
The Rams will be more focused on basketball.
“The best gift we can give is winning a championship on the road,” Dowtin said. “That’s what we want to do, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. It would be a nice Christmas gift for coach Cox and his family, the rest of the families and for the fans. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”