Even in a rough patch, Fatts Russell can will Rhode Island to a win.
Mired in a shooting slump for weeks and banged up with a heel injury, the senior guard scored 13 points after the three-minute mark of regulation, including three clutch free throws that forced overtime, as the Rams survived winless St. Joseph’s 85-77 on Sunday at the Ryan Center.
“As a senior, I thought he came out here and played the right way,” head coach David Cox said of Russell. “He was spraying the ball. He was stepping into shots that were there. They weren’t falling necessarily in the first half, but he kept in the right frame of mind and ended up bringing us home.”
The Rams were on the brink of their worst loss of the season - and perhaps in a few years - when Russell came to the rescue. With the Hawks leading by three in the final seconds, Russell drew a foul on the right wing and got a 3-point attempt up in the same motion. He made all three free throws to tie the game, and URI surged in overtime.
“I’ve been struggling all year. It’s not a secret,” Russell said. “My confidence hasn’t gone anywhere though. I’m still doing Fatts Russell things. My confidence is not going to go anywhere. I’m going to keep being a leader for this team.”
St. Joe’s entered at 0-6 and was without leading scorer Ryan Daly but gave the Rams all they could handle. Some of the same inconsistency that URI overcame in Wednesday’s win over St. Bonaventure threatened to cause significantly more damage this time around.
While improvements will still be necessary, URI could ill afford a loss to the Hawks, especially with a challenging road trip to Richmond and VCU up next. The Rams ended up taking two out of three in their longest homestand of the season and moved to 5-5 overall.
The game’s first 13 minutes were shaky - and a sign of things to come - for the Rams, who committed seven turnovers, shot 40 percent from the field and watched St. Joseph’s start at a 60 percent shooting clip. Two 3-pointers by Allen Betrand keyed a 9-0 run, which turned a six-point deficit into a 30-27 lead. A dunk by Makhel Mitchell and a putback by Malik Martin made it 34-29. The Rams hit another rough patch down the stretch, making only one of their last six shots. The Hawks outscored them 8-2 to take a one-point lead into halftime.
The Rams slowed their turnover pace in the second half but struggled to find their footing at the offensive end for any length of time. Every time it looked like they would pull away - a five-point lead here, a four-point edge there - the Hawks pushed back. Taylor Funk’s game-high 29 points kept St. Joe’s in it. URI scored 50 points in the paint but was dared into firing away from deep, attempting a season-high 25 3-pointers and making only six.
“We showed some grit, particularly at the end to come away with a win. But I’ve got to give St. Joe’s a lot of credit,” Cox said. “I thought they came up here and played really hard. They had a great game plan. They played a lot of zone, then they switched up the zone a lot in the second half and kept us off-balance. We were fortunate to come out of here with a victory.”
A driving layup by Russell gave URI a 65-64 lead with 1:05 left, but Funk turned a pick-and-roll into a three-point play. After a URI turnover, two free throws put the Hawks up 69-65. Jalen Carey’s fadeaway with 12 seconds left kept the pressure on, and Cameron Brown made only one of two free throws with eight seconds remaining. That set the table for Russell.
“We thought that they were going to try to take the foul much earlier and I’m not sure what their game plan was there,” Cox said. “We wanted to space the floor, set a half-court, step-up screen, so that Fatts could just get downhill and make the right play - whether that’s a shot for him or collapsing the defense and spraying it. As soon as he felt contact, he went up into a real shot and I thought that was the right call.”
“I know when I’m coming down with a full head of steam, people normally tough me to control me,” Russell said. “So I waited for him to touch my body and as soon as he touched my body, I just went up for the 3.”
At the line, Russell had to listen to a little ribbing from the Hawks’ Dahmir Bishop, a former high school teammate.
“I was a little distracted at first because my little brother Dahmir was on the free throw line,” Russell said. “Honestly, I just wanted to win for my team. One step closer to our goal, which is an A-10 regular season championship, so that was my main focus.”
Carey scored the first bucket of overtime before a Russell floater. Jeremy Sheppard hit a runner for an 80-74 lead and D.J. Johnson delivered the dagger on a corner 3-pointer with 17 seconds left.
Russell had scored in single digits three times in his last four games and was 1-of-15 from 3-point range in that stretch. He did manage to hand out 16 assists in those games, a sign of a mature player doing what his team needs. He stuffed the stat sheet again on Sunday with 20 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and five steals. He passed Tom Garrick for third place on the school’s career steals list.
“We’ve talked to all of our guys about bringing value outside of scoring,” Cox said. “I’ve talked to Fatts specifically about that because Fatts is a big-time scorer. I tell him that you can affect the game in so many different ways - with your defense, your peskiness, your steals, obviously with your assists and your playmaking. He was just all over the floor tonight. He was just locked into the game today. He came up big and he brought us home.”
Mitchell added 15 points and Johnson had 11 for the Rams, who visit preseason A-10 favorite Richmond on Wednesday.