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SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Fans returned to the Ryan Center for the first time since March 4, 2020 on Thursday night and were treated to a solid dress rehearsal by the home team.

The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team handled its business and put up some highlights in a 109-56 exhibition game victory over Johnson & Wales.

“We were really excited to get out there and play in front of a loud crowd, back in front of the Ryan Center crowd,” head coach David Cox said. “I thought our guys played with a lot of energy today. I thought they were connected.”

Five days from the season opener against Boston University on Tuesday, the Rams came out hot against the Division III Wildcats, opening the game on a 16-2 run. Taking full advantage of the physical mismatch, the Rams racked up 78 points in the paint. They totaled 20 assists and out-rebounded the Wildcats by 29. On the other side, they snagged 14 steals and limited the Wildcats to 29 percent shooting.

It was a strong start for a team looking to rediscover itself after last season’s struggles.

“The winning is obviously important, but right now, we’re reclaiming our culture, to be perfectly honest,” Cox said. “That’s the No. 1 focus - how we communicate with each other on a daily basis, how we support one another, how unselfish we play, how we communicate with the refs, our mental approach to each game. Obviously, we knew we were the better team tonight. We wanted to come out here and play with a certain degree of discipline, a certain degree of focus. Obviously, we didn’t do everything correct, but I think a lot of those culture things showed up tonight.”

The exhibition game was another step in a more typical preseason following last year’s upheaval. The Rams also had a scrimmage with St. John’s last week.

“Start with the summer, the 10 weeks we spent together that we didn’t have the previous summer. That was huge,” Cox said. “We had a few intra-squad scrimmages, we went down and had our so-called secret scrimmage against St. John’s, we got out here in an exhibition game. Working out some kinks, working on our rotation, identify some major points of emphasis - it’s been really good for us.”

In his return from a knee injury that cost him all but seven games last season, Makhi Mitchell logged a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He chipped in a team-high five assists and showcased the skill set that makes him one of the highest-ceiling players on the URI roster.

“Definitely excited,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been out for probably eight months. A little anxious coming into the season. Coach told me, ‘Don’t be anxious. Everything’s going to work itself out.’ Just playing my game at the end of the day. I can say coming back, I’m more confident. I took a lot from watching and getting myself better.”

Antwan Walker led five Rams in double figures with 22 points, dominating in the paint. He added five rebounds.

Jalen Carey tallied 16 points. Two freshmen - Sebastian Thomas and Ileri Ayo-Faleye - also hit the mark, with Thomas scoring 13 and Ayo-Faleye chipping in 11. Ball State transfer Ishmael El-Amin had nine points and four assists.

Thomas also had six rebounds and five steals. The former Bishop Hendricken star was mentioned as a potential redshirt candidate in the preseason but his play in the preseason has forced a change in plans.

“You saw it out there today,” Cox said of Thomas. “Regardless of competition level, that kid can flat out play. He’s a true point guard. He’s a gamer. Guys love playing with him.”

URI’s 20 assists were a higher number than all but one game last season, a sign that the improved connections touted in the preseason will translate on the court.

“Extremely unselfish group,” Cox said. “Makhi had five assists in the first half. They take pride in that. That says a lot about these guys. Their focus is on winning right now. The proof is in the pudding. When you share the ball like that, that bodes well for us moving forward.”

Outside shooting was the only real negative for the Rams. They made just three of 20 shots from beyond the arc. Their top shooter, preseason third-team all-conference pick Jeremy Sheppard, was 0-for-4 on his way to a scoreless night.

“We obviously didn’t shoot the ball great from the 3-point line,” Cox said. “I thought there were a couple of factors. There were some wide open, kind of uncomfortable shots initially, and we probably forced a few late. I don’t think that will be an issue.”

Malik Martin was 2-of-10 from the field for six points but pulled down eight rebounds. Sophomore Ishmael Leggett had seven points and three assists.

Makhel Mitchell scored three points and sat out the second half as a precaution after bumping his knee. Tres Berry also missed the game for precautionary reasons with an ankle issue.

Overall, the Rams shot 57 percent in the first half before cooling off in the second. They made 18 of 23 free throws.

“I think they’re really talented,” said Johnson & Wales coach Jamie Benton. “They’re going to be special in the A-10. I know there’s some teams out there, but I think they’re going to be really good.”

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