SOUTH KINGSTOWN — A rollercoaster of a non-conference slate had room for one more wild ride, but the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team ended it on an upswing.
Trailing lowly Middle Tennessee by seven points early in the second half, the Rams turned the game around with a 26-3 run and went on to a 72-60 victory Sunday night at the Ryan Center.
“Once we settled in, I thought we played pretty well,” URI head coach David Cox said. “I thought our defense after the first four minutes of the game and the first four minutes of the second half really settled in and did an outstanding job. That allowed us to settle down on offense, see some shots go in, make a run when we needed to and come out with a victory.”
Coming off a 1-2 showing at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii – and a long trip home – the Rams drew the kind of opponent that might have set them up to coast into Atlantic 10 play. Middle Tennessee has a reputation as a mid-major powerhouse, but a coaching change and significant personnel losses conspired to put them at 3-9 coming into Sunday’s game, with only one victory against a Division I team. The Blue Raiders had lost eight in a row, but didn’t look the part in hanging around throughout the first half and building a 44-37 lead early in the second.
“Dragging a little bit because of all the travel and the three games,” Cox said. “And Middle Tennessee was really prepared for us.”
Three-point shooting powered the upset bid, with the Blue Raiders making nine of their first 11 attempts from beyond the arc, despite entering the game at 29 percent from 3-point range for the season. The opening minutes of each half did the most damage, with Middle Tennessee hitting three shots from deep in the first 4:04 of the game and three more in the opening 4:25 of the second half. A 29-27 URI lead at the break was quickly erased.
“Too much slippage in our defense,” Cox said. “The first four minutes of the game, I think they scored 13 points. That’s not our brand of basketball. Then we settled in really well and took a two-point lead at half. We talked about that at halftime – that our defense would have to come out in the first four minutes of the second half and establish itself. And we did just the opposite. I believe they scored 16 points in that first four minutes, which is somewhat unprecedented.”
URI clamped down from there, allowing only three points in the next eight minutes. Two free throws by Jermaine Harris started the comeback, triggering 11 straight points. A 3-pointer by Dana Tate capped the burst, which put URI on top 48-44.
After three points in a row by the Blue Raiders, URI’s burst resumed. Tate and Jeff Dowtin hit 3-pointers, Tyrese Martin scored on a putback and Fatts Russell turned a steal into a layup for a 64-47 lead. In all, URI outscored the Blue Raiders 26-3 in a seven-and-a-half minute stretch.
“I shared my thoughts with them after that first media timeout and they responded very well,” Cox said. “The next four minutes, we held them to zero points and the following four minutes, we held them to three points. We’ve been a good defensive team. That’s our culture here. Once they settled in and got focused on exactly what they were supposed to be doing, it showed.”
The extended surge proved decisive, with Middle Tennessee never again getting within single digits. After their hot start, the Blue Raiders missed their last 10 3-point attempts and scored just 16 points in the final 15:35.
Dowtin led the Rams with 17 points and Russell chipped in 11. Tate led what may have been the best performance yet by URI’s freshman class. He scored a career-high 15 points to go with six rebounds and was a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point land. Tyrese Martin added seven points and eight rebounds, and Jermaine Harris scored nine points.
The win sends the Rams to Atlantic 10 play with a 7-5 record that they know could be better. Losses to Bucknell, Hawaii and Stony Brook loom large, dimming the highlights from the win over West Virginia. The Rams’ A-10 schedule begins with a road swing against preseason favorite St. Louis and Richmond.
“Just being fair, there definitely has been growth, and I’m proud of their effort and coachability up to this point,” Cox said. “But we’ve got to turn this corner. I’m accepting nothing less than winning. That’s the culture we’ve established here. Those are the expectations. We are now entering conference play, and I’m ready to go out and get another A-10 championship. I don’t think that’s going to be easy obviously. We start out on the road at St. Louis and then we head to Richmond. But we’re going to take every last one of these games and play them like they’re the last game we’re playing, I can assure you of that.”