Fatts Russell and the new guys?
Don't forget about Antwan Walker.
URI's junior forward delivered the best game of his career in Wednesday's season opener against No. 18 Arizona State. He had 19 points and eight rebounds, and his own 14 consecutive points in the second half served as the ignition in the Rams' comeback bid.
“I thought he played with tremendous energy and confidence tonight,” head coach David Cox said.
Walker is one of only three players on the roster who suited up for the Rams last season. Russell has his name in lights, of course, with his preseason all-conference selection and his national profile. Other headlines in the offseason went to new arrivals like Jalen Carey, the Mitchell twins and Malik Martin.
With fellow junior Jermaine Harris sidelined by a foot issue Wednesday, it was only Walker and Russell making return engagements.
Cox has touted offseason improvements by both Walker and Harris, and Walker had his on full display. He shot 8-of-11 from the field, with success both inside and out. As the Rams found a weakness in Arizona State's ball-screen coverages, Walker burst onto the scene as half of a dynamic duo with Russell, who found him for easy buckets time and again in the second half. He also drilled a 3-pointer off a kick-out by Russell that gave URI the lead.
A year ago at this time, Walker was sitting out the first semester after transferring in from Georgetown. He offered hints of his abilities with 10 points in his December debut last year but reached double figures only twice more. He appears ready to be a much bigger factor this season.
There are kinks to be worked out at the defensive end for Walker, but the burst stood out.
We’ve got to continue to work with all of our bigs on our defense, particularly hedging and rebounding. That wasn’t at a high level tonight,” Cox said. “Antwan fell victim to that a few times, but he gave us tremendous energy, a tremendous boost and he gave us an opportunity to win tonight.”
Sheppard, Johnston star
Debuts for the longest-tenured of URI's newcomers were worth the wait.
After sitting out last season, Jeremy Sheppard scored 19 points and D.J. Johnson had 12 points and seven rebounds.
Sheppard made 4-of-4 3-point attempts, looking the part of the shooter he was billed to be. Sheppard last played a Division I game in 2017 with East Carolina before being dismissed from the team. He spent one year at the College of Central Florida and transferred to URI before last season, but was academically ineligible.
Johnson also joined the Rams from the junior college ranks at Williston State and redshirted last season. His versatility allowed him to help out the Rams' front line amid foul trouble on Wednesday, but he also flashed his range. Johnson hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc.
The outside shooting, in particular, from Sheppard and Johnson would be a boon for the Rams if it keeps up.
“It allows us to play in space now, because we have guys around the perimeter who have to be guarded because they can make shots,” Cox said. “It opens up some penetration lanes and obviously gives the big men more room to work inside.”
- URI was called for more fouls (29) than in any game last year. Twenty-five was its season high in 2019-20.
- The Rams' defense lacked discipline, especially in the first half, but the length and athleticism in its lineup gives the unit a very high ceiling, if the program's defensive principles take hold.
- The Mitchell twins were in foul trouble for much of the night. Makhi started and finished with four points and seven rebounds. Makhel had three points and three rebounds.
- Malik Martin scored nine points in his debut and, like a true Martin, added a block.
- Jermaine Harris missed the game after receiving an injection for inflammation in his foot. He is considered day-to-day and Cox said he hopes Harris will get on the court at some point in the Mohegan Sun games.