URI beat St. Joe’s 73-55 on Saturday at the Ryan Center.
How it happened: The Rams were a step slow in the first half. After a cold start, they settled in for a 10-0 run that looked like it would get them back in business, but instead, St. Joseph’s hung around for the rest of the half. Despite playing without A-10 leading scorer Ryan Daly, who was in a walking boot, the last-place Hawks made five 3-pointers and worked their way to a 26-26 tie. URI showed hints of a surge late in the first half, outscoring the Hawks 9-5 over the final 3:32, but it was sitll just a four-point game at the break. The Hawks continued to stay close early in the second half thanks to three 3-pointers, but those would be their only buckets for more than 11 minutes as URI clamped down. The Rams pushed the lead to 11 then really turned it on in bumping it to 20. That was all that was required.
What it means: Needing to bounce back and - more importantly - to avoid a misstep against the league’s last-place team, the Rams did what they needed to do. If it wasn’t a memorable milepost in a strong season, it at least won’t be remembered for the wrong reasons, as the kind of bad loss that could torpedo NCAA Tournament chances. Most projections indicate the Rams simply have to avoid missteps down the stretch. They did that today.
Slow: The noon start kept the Rams’ classmates away, with most of the usually-packed student section empty. Otherwise the place was full, with an announced crowd of 6.673. In the first 20 minutes, the players seemed to lack energy, too. Maybe it was the early start. Maybe it was the Hawks’ standing as the worst in the A-10. Maybe it was the fact that the Hawks were seemingly in even deeper trouble than usual, with A-10 leading scorer Ryan Daly sidelined by injury. The Rams have to hope all of those things were factors and that - after falling into a 17-point hole at Dayton - there isn’t a slow start trend at play. Whatever the case, URI must get out of the blocks better, especially as it lines up against better teams.
The switch: Defense got the Rams going bit by bit in the first half - a steal by Fatts Russell leading to a layup that ended a dry spell, a swipe by Jeff Dowtin and ensuing layup by Cyril Langevine that triggered a 6-0 burst. It really took hold in the second half, with St. Joe’s shooting only 26 percent and scoring just 24 points. For these Rams, a breakout is always going to start with defense and they know that. Said coach David Cox: “It’s the ultimate priority. On the offensive end, you can’t always control that. You can’t control how the refs are calling the game. You can’t control sometimes the bounce of that ball. But defense is absolutely controllable. It’s about effort, technique, will, communication - things that we work on every single day. I thought that there was very little urgency in the first half and in the second half it picked up.”
Bench spark: Jacob Toppin had a huge hand in the second-half surge, scoring seven points in a row and 10 of 13 as URI pushed a 48-40 lead out to 63-43. He had a dunk off a Langevine assist, hit a free throw, scored on two drives down the lane and buried a corner 3. After going scoreless in the first half, Toppin finished with 12, which matched a career-high.
Doubles and almosts: Tyrese Martin had a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, despite a tough shooting night (6-of-17). Langevine and Jeff Dowtin were close to double-doubles of their own. Langevine had 11 rebounds and seven points, while Dowtin had 14 points and eight assists. He also had seven rebounds, so he was within range of a triple-double, too.
Steady: It’s to the point now where Fatts Russell can have a big game without anyone really noticing. In his first game since being named to the Naismith Award Midseason Team, Russell led the Rams with 18 points, added six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
R&R: URI gets its bye this week, with no games until next Saturday’s trip to Davidson. It comes at what seems like a good time, with the Rams at 11-2 in conference play and five games remaining. They’ll have a chance to rest, reset and make a final push into the stretch run.
Quotable: “It wasn’t our prettiest performance, particularly in the first half. I give [St. Joe’s coach] Billy Lange a lot of credit for playing without their star. He had those guys ready to play and they played hard, mixed up the defenses and they stayed in the game in the first half. I thought our defensive intensity picked up in the second half and that was probably the biggest difference.” - Cox
Next: URI heads to Davidson, one of the trickiest games remaining on their schedule. After a rough non-conference season and a slow start to A-10 play, the Wildcats have won six of their last eight, including a demolition of St. Bonaventure on Friday night.