SOUTH KINGSTOWN - In danger of its first three-game Atlantic 10 losing streak since 2014, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team avoided it by overcoming an opponent that was even more desperate.
The Rams handed preseason A-10 favorite St. Louis a fourth consecutive loss and snapped their own two-game slide with a 65-54 victory Saturday afternoon at the Ryan Center.
“It feels really good to get a win after that two-game slide,” URI head coach David Cox said. “We got back in the gym. I thought our guys were locked in for the last couple of days.”
It had been five years since URI’s last extended losing streak in conference play. The 2013-14 team featuring freshmen E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin lost six straight en route to a 14-18 season and a 5-11 mark in the A-10. The program’s rise began the next year, and no conference losing streak reached three in all that time.
This team’s season of highs and lows had hit one of its lowest points Wednesday, when the Rams blew a 19-point halftime lead and lost to Duquesne. That followed a road loss at UMass, which was previously winless in A-10 play. Before that, URI had won three straight, including a signature victory over VCU.
URI didn’t rediscover the exact brand of smooth, high-scoring basketball that powered the win over VCU or the first half dominance against Duquesne - but it also didn’t need to in a grind-it-out game with the Billikens. Their meeting in the A-10 opener ended with a 60-53 score, and offense was just as hard to come by in the rematch. The Rams had a little more, taking a lead three minutes into the game and largely staying in control from there. St. Louis worked back to a pair of ties, but its 4-2 edge in the opening minutes remained its last lead.
“We’ve been talking about handling prosperity all year, and we’ve struggled with that a little bit. The other day, we got hit in the face with adversity at a high level and we didn’t handle that well either,” Cox said. “I was looking for these guys to handle some adversity today. I knew they would play well because I knew the crowd was going to be here and we were going to be energized by that. But St. Louis is a really good team and a really well-coached team, and I knew at some point they would make a run. I wanted to see if we could stick together today and we definitely stuck together.”
After its second-half struggles versus the Dukes, Rhody held steady this time. The teams traded baskets for most of the half, with four points as the longest run by either team through 15 minutes. URI got key answers from Jeff Dowtin and Dana Tate when the Billikens twice cut the lead to one. Tyrese Martin drove for a layup with the shot clock running down to break a 39-39 tie and URI led for the rest of the game. A Martin 3-pointer and a pull-up jumper by Fatts Russell made it 52-43 with 3:35 left, and St. Louis failed to get closer than seven. Martin provided the exclamation point with a tomahawk dunk and an alley-oop slam on URI’s next trip.
“Sometimes, you can talk to young men, but they have to be in the fire,” Cox said. “They were in the fire at UMass. They were definitely in the fire in the second half at Duquesne. And it was something they weren’t used to. The momentum wave Duquesne had in the second half of that game, we couldn’t stop it. Obviously, we watched film and we talked about it a lot the last few days. I think they knew what to expect coming into this game - it was going to be a physical game against a very talented team. At some point, they were going to make a run or they were going to be ahead. We responded well together.”
Each team hit a drought in the first half that the other took advantage of. St. Louis made one field goal in a span of 6:37. In the meantime URI put together a 12-2 run that turned an early 4-0 deficit into a 12-6 lead. The Rams returned the favor later in the half, making one bucket from the 11:01 mark to 4:40. The Billikens turned that stretch into a 9-2 run that pulled them back into a 17-17 tie. A 3-pointer by Martin ended the dry spell, and the Rams pushed back in front for a 24-20 halftime advantage.
Dowtin paced the Rams with 17 points, Martin scored 16 with 10 rebounds for his first career double-double and Russell tallied 13 points. Langevine was scoreless until the seven-minute mark of the second half and finished with six points but was productive nonetheless, totaling nine rebounds, five blocks and four assists. URI committed only seven turnovers after 17 giveaways when the teams met in January.
St. Louis leading scorer Javon Bess scored two points after tallying 24 in the first meeting.
The win was more than a streak-stopper for the Rams given what comes next. URI visits league leader Davidson Wednesday and hosts 7-2 Dayton on Saturday.
“When we’re playing together and we’re all in unison, it’s great,” Dowtin said. “We just have to keep that going."