The breakout season for the University of Rhode Island women’s basketball team ended with a heartbreaker on Friday afternoon. VCU won 64-57 in overtime in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals.
As with every step of the program’s rebuild, the Rams are trying to view it as another part of the process, even as they lick their wounds.
“As I reflect, we’re right where we need to be and probably a little ahead of schedule,” head coach Tammi Reiss said. “The process is in motion and eventually, the goal is to become a champion. I think we needed this experience, playing a very senior-laden VCU team on their home court in the quarterfinals. I think that’s good for us. I think we needed to battle and really test ourselves. We can build on this. The kids that are crying in the locker room, they’ll definitely use that as motivation in the offseason to get better and become a champion.”
Last season was the first step as Reiss took over the program. The Rams had a winning record in February before ending the season with five straight losses, but the foundation was set. With waves of new talent arriving but limited time together due to the pandemic and only three non-conference games, it took a while for the Rams to figure things out. Once they did, they delivered the program’s best season since 1995-96. Reiss was named A-10 Coach of the Year and junior Emmanuelle Tahane was named Co-Player of the Year. URI went 11-4 in A-10 play. In the 10 seasons before Reiss’ arrival, Rhode Island was 24-126 in league play.
“I thought last year, we set our culture, we put the process in motion. And this year we built our momentum with a lot of talent that came in,” Reiss said. “I couldn’t be any prouder of the kids that came in together in the pandemic without any preseason – really without any practice – and we started playing games. Gradually, they built that chemistry. Probably after Christmas, I realized how good we could be. Ever since then, the kids just bought in. They really bought into our culture and that idea of why not us? Why can’t we be successful at Rhode Island? I credit my players and I credit my staff for having that positivity.”
URI matched up with perennial contender VCU in the quarterfinals, the same team it beat in the regular-season finale for probably its best win of the year. That victory locked up the No. 4 seed but it guaranteed that Rhody wouldn’t be sneaking up its quarterfinal opponent.
“I think it woke them up. Those kids, they’re fighters, they’re warriors,” Reiss said of VCU. “Sometimes, they can win without having to really compete and battle because they’re so talented. I think last weekend, that kind of woke them up. They made a conscious effort on the boards, defensively they rally packed the paint and I think their kids were ready.”
Rhode Island started strong, building a seven-point lead in the first quarter, but VCU controlled the tempo the rest of the way. Playing on its home court, VCU dominated the second quarter, limiting URI to seven points. Rhody did not score over the final 4:08 of the half, while VCU had a 14-3 run to help it take a 30-27 lead into the half.
URI’s Johanna Muzet left with an injury in the third quarter and the Rams fell behind by 10 in the fourth quarter before rallying to force overtime. Catherine Cairns came up with a steal and hit two free throws with seven seconds left to tie the game.
The extra session was a struggle for URI, which made only one of nine field goal attempts. VCU hit a 3-pointer on its first overtime possession and led the rest of the way. VCU went on to win the A-10 championship.
“I thought it was a very hard-fought game between two good teams,” Reiss said. “I thought inevitably, VCU’s big three and their experience won out at the end of the game. Big offensive rebounds when they needed it. And huge shots when they needed it. My hats off to them. I thought they had a great game plan.”
Senior Marta Vargas tied a career-high with five 3-pointers en route to a team-high 18 points. Cairns scored 15, while Tahane had 11 points and eight rebounds.
“We knew coming in it was going to be a tough battle and it was on VCU’s home court,” Cairns said. “I feel like we never really got in a rhythm offensively and got in foul trouble defensively. Tough battle all the way around.”
“I feel like we’ve been doing this multiple times this season. There were a lot of games where we could have given up and we didn’t,” Vargas said. “Today, we did the same thing. We want to win and today we didn’t. But at least we fought through the end. Obviously, it’s not the result we wanted but we can’t say we didn’t fight.”
The Rams will prep to continue the fight next season. All but two players on the roster will be eligible to return.
“It’s a building process. Last year was step one. This year was step two. Rounding that corner, we’re going to step three,” Reiss said. “And you must grow to get better in this league. If you’re going to challenge Dayton and Fordham and VCU, you’ve got to learn from this and you’ve got to let it motivate you. I think this crew, they’ll realize they were right there and this is what they need to do to get over the hump.”