URI beat VCU 87-75 at the Ryan Center on Friday night.
How it happened: URI grabbed control from the start, jumping to a 17-11 lead with strong defense and solid shooting. Solid turned spectacular quickly, when Jeff Dowtin scored 15 points in about four minutes. The last of those came in a three-point flurry - three shots from deep in 58 seconds - and gave URI a stunning 20-point lead. It grew to 27 later in the first half before settling in at 22 at the break. Rhody outscored VCU 14-7 in the first five minutes of the second half, with a Fatts Russell 3-pointer making it a 29-point game. VCU finally made a push at that point and it was a significant one, with a 20-3 run cutting deep into the deficit. It eventually got down to nine, but URI held tough. A 3-pointer by Martin that pushed the lead back to 15 and a dunk and-1 by Cyril Langevine sealed the deal.
What it means: All the buzz that’s been growing around this URI team only gets louder. The Rams will get more Top 25 votes, possibly sneaking into the poll, and will continue popping up in NCAA bracket projections. URI owns an eight-game winning streak, a season sweep of VCU - for two resume wins - and a fairly tight grip on second place in the Atlantic 10 standings. URI is 8-1 in the league, behind only Dayton and with a two-game cushion on everybody else. There’s also the performance itself. The first half was URI at its very best, and they’ve played a similar brand of basketball a few times in this win streak. With more of it, watch out.
Rolling: Can URI play any better than it did in the first half? Rhody averaged 1.361 points per possession and allowed 0.75. If those numbers were over a full season, both would rank first in the nation. The Rams shot 50 percent from the field, made five of 11 3-point tries and scored 14 fast-break points. They allowed VCU to shoot 43 percent with only one 3-pointer, limited a speedy team to three fast-break points and out-rebounded the black and gold Rams by 15.
Conducting the masterpiece: Dowtin was at the center of the big half with his explosive scoring stretch. Scoreless through the first 10 minutes, he hit two driving floaters to put his team up seven. Two Dowtin free throws, plus buckets by Mekhi Long and Fatts Russell, bumped the leadit to 13. Then Dowtin buried three 3-pointers in 58 seconds, the last of which was a pull-up on the fast break that pushed the lead to 20. VCU took a timeout, and Dowtin leapt into his charging teammates, the crowd of 7,896 erupting around them. Dowtin said, “You just get in a different zone, a different type of rhythm. Confident. Just keep shooting when you see one go in. I just fed off the crowd and just had everything going at the time.”
The foundation: The first-half offensive will fill highlight reels, but defense set the course for it. VCU ended up with a few easy buckets in late shot-clock situations, which helped its overall first-half shooting percentage. Because to the eye test, URI seemed to be locking everything down. Nothing was easy for VCU. And limiting fast-break chances meant that VCU’s only hope was to execute in the halfcourt against that nothing-comes-easy defense.
Holding on: URI would have liked to finish it off a little earlier, but coach David Cox and the players weren’t too concerned about that in the postgame. VCU is a quality team and it would have been difficult for URI to sustain its first 20 minutes for 20 more. That’s the nature of the beast in a game like that - a good team will make a run. URI, itself, is pretty used to making second-half surges, while it’s had some adventures when playing with the lead.
Big night: Dowtin’s hot streak made him the night’s leading man, but Russell actually led the Rams with 30 points. It’s not often that 30 points can come quietly, but that speaks to Russell’s performance this season - of course he’s going to score a lot of points, one thinks - and to how he delivered this particular one. Russell went to the free-throw line 18 times and made 16 of them.
All four: Tyrese Martin and Cyril Langevine also had strong showings, Langevine totaling 11 points and nine rebounds and Martin scoring 18 points. Martin continues a nice ride, with his fourth straight game in double figures. More and more, Rhody is getting all of its top players to play well on the same night, which probably has something to do with the win streak.
Back: After a hip injury limited him to nine minutes the past two games, Jermaine Harris got the start and played 20 minutes. He was solid against a good front line, getting seven points and five rebounds.
Low production: Probably the only negative stat of the night for URI was its bench scoring. Mekhi Long had three points, Jacob Toppin scored one and that was it. The Rams clearly didn’t need the help with their core players delivering big nights, but it’s something to watch going forward, especially as big minutes continue to pile up for the starters.
More of the same: URI has now won eight of its last nine matchups against VCU. Previously, they had lost five straight to the Richmond Rams. That turnaround is as sure a sign as any of URI’s emergence in the Atlantic 10 in the last few years.
Quotable: “The winning has changed things, but we anticipated, back in October and November, that we would be an NCAA Tournament caliber team,” Cox said. “We’re obviously not there yet. We’ve got a long season still to go - there’s a third of the season left. But we’re not necessarily surprised by where we’re at, and that’s not to sound overconfident. I just believe in these guys.” - David Cox
Next: URI hosts UMass on Tuesday.