Over the last few years, victories over VCU have been frequent and important for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team.
To become the Atlantic 10 bully in 2017 and 2018, Rhody had to dethrone VCU. In 2019, a win provided early confidence and even a bad loss at the Siegel Center helped get URI going on a late-season push. Last year, two wins helped URI stay in the league’s top tier.
On Saturday, an 83-68 victory over VCU offered signs that Rhody can be the A-10 contender that it hopes to be this season, while giving it a major boost in that quest.
“I thought it was a good and much-needed win, particularly on the road against a team like VCU,” head coach David Cox said. “I thought our guys came in hungry today and locked in on the game plan. I thought we played a physical brand of defense today, which is more our style, and we haven’t seen that in a little while. And we shared the ball relatively well.”
A strong second half represented some of URI’s best basketball all year as it turned a 40-40 halftime tie into the relatively easy win. Rhody shot 48 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free-throw line while limiting the kind of live-ball turnovers that VCU’s pressure defense feasts on. The defensive effort was even more impressive. VCU shot 33 percent from the field in the second half, scored only six points off turnovers and got just two buckets from players other than star Bones Hyland. A 17-2 run that allowed URI to take control coincided with a field goal drought of 6:23 for VCU.
“It just goes back to us defending,” senior guard Jeremy Sheppard said. “I feel like we struggled with that at the beginning of the year. That was the main focus. We knew defense was going to be the reason why we won tonight.”
URI has won nine of its last 10 meetings against VCU, and this one comes at a good time, providing a significant conference victory. VCU entered at 9-2 overall and a perfect 2-0 in A-10 play. In the NCAA’s NET rankings, VCU ranks second among A-10 teams at 31 overall. The victory goes in the books as URI’s first quadrant 1 win of the season, though its victory over Seton Hall could end up in that range.
URI is now 6-6 on the year and 3-2 in A-10 play, bouncing back in a big way from Wednesday’s loss to Richmond.
“I remember the whole league chasing VCU for so long,” Cox said. “We were really hungry and we had some success over the last few games. I think that has carried over the last few years and it carried over today. We didn’t come in intimidated at all. I think that showed.”
URI trailed for most of the first half before a good finish. A three-point play by Malik Martin and a 3-pointer by Allen Betrand turned a four-point deficit into a 36-34 lead. The teams traded buckets in the final two minutes, with VCU’s Jamir Watkins hitting a jumper at the halftime buzzer to force a 40-40 tie.
Three-point plays by Betrand and Sheppard built a six-point lead early in the second half. VCU worked back to even at 54-54 with 13:20 left. That’s when URI surged. Freshman Ishmael Leggett sparked the 17-2 run with five straight points. Sheppard delivered a steal and layup before burying a 3-pointer. Betrand followed with one of his own to make it 67-56. A free throw by Jermaine Harris and a 3-pointer by Fatts Russell capped the burst and put URI on top 71-56.
“We’ve been working on our chemistry still,” Sheppard said. “I felt like that played the biggest part - all of us sticking together. We started the second half 40-40, so we just looked at it as the beginning of a new game. We just had to go out there and give it our all.”
VCU’s only points during URI’s run came from the free-throw line, as the home team missed five straight shots and committed three turnovers.
“I was disappointed in our defense at halftime, particularly our one-on-one defense,” Cox said. “They were beating us one-on-one on too many occasions. If we didn’t tighten that up, we were going to be in trouble. We addressed that at the half and I thought we improved tremendously in the second half.”
Russell beat a path to the free-throw line, making 13 of 14 en route to a team-high 23 points. Sheppard added 20 while shooting 62 percent from the field. Making his first start as a Ram, Towson transfer Betrand scored 13 points. He replaced Malik Martin, who still played 25 minutes and chipped in five points.
“I thought we needed a change, a little bit of a spark, and he provided that in a big way today,” Cox said of Betrand. “With that said, Malik, even though he didn’t start, played 25 minutes and played a huge role on the defensive end.”
URI committed 19 turnovers for the second straight game but the giveaways did less damage. Richmond had 22 points off turnovers on Wednesday. Across town, VCU managed only 12.
“They generate probably 25 percent of their offense from stealing people’s basketballs and going and scoring,” Cox said. “That was huge.”
URI has matched Richmond for the most A-10 wins at three, though they have played at least one more game than the rest of the league at this point.
With their only losses coming to the preseason favorite Spiders and to potential contender Davidson, the Rams like where they are. They also own a win over St. Bonaventure, the only team to beat Richmond so far.
“We’re starting to see it,” Cox said. “Although some others may not necessarily see it, may be quick to jump on some of the negativity in regards to losing, we have stuck together as a team and as a staff. It’s a process. We’re in abnormal times. Some people forget about that. I want to give our guys a tremendous amount of credit for their resiliency and obviously for this win today.”