Once was enough for Fatts Russell.
For the entirety of his first year in Kingston, the University of Rhode Island guard knew only victory against his team’s chief rival. Russell’s coming-out party as a freshman helped URI past Providence at the Ryan Center, and bragging rights remained until last year, when the Rams lost at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
Russell had a bad game that day, and he remembered that rivalry moment more than his rivalry introduction.
“I didn’t want to lose to PC again,” Russell said. “I’m tired of losing to them.”
And he didn’t let it happen again. It was the Fatts Show at the Ryan Center Friday night as the junior continued the best stretch of his URI career with more signature moments in a 75-61 win over the Friars.
“You’re getting an opportunity to witness the true evolution and transformation of a young man,” head coach David Cox said of Russell. “Obviously, his basketball game is speaking for itself, but I’m talking about the young man. I’ve talked about this a number of times this year. He’s a general out there. Not only is he calming the players down, he calmed me down a couple of times out there, told me ‘I got you, coach.’ It did make me breathe a lot easier. I hope the fans appreciate what they’re seeing, not only from this team but from this man in particular.”
They certainly did on Friday. Russell played to the crowd at every momentum swing, urging them on and yelling that the Ryan Center was, “our house.” That has been a rallying cry for the Rams for a while now, with their last loss in Kingston coming in February of last year. They’ve won their last eight home games, a streak they especially wanted to keep going against Providence.
“We talk about it every time we have a home game,” Russell said. “Nobody’s going to come in here and win. We have that mindset and we’ve been doing a good job of it so far.”
For Russell, it might have been more accurate to say, “My house.” Rarely can a college basketball player so thoroughly get a crowd wrapped around his finger. Russell has been doing it since that first Providence game his freshman year. There were rough patches last year, but Russell has left them behind and has welcomed his fans back with open arms.
The 8,052 in attendance Friday spent much of the first half waiting for the leading man to take the stage. Russell struggled shooting the ball in the first 20 minutes, going two of 10 from the field. But in a sign of his growth, he had five assists, zero turnovers and a pair of steals.
“We’ve got this little guy right here who just continues to play so big,” Cox said. “He got everybody going in the first half tonight. I think he had five assists at the half, and then he kind of took over down the stretch.”
A collision late in the first half left Russell nursing his forearm and he missed the ensuing free throws. He was still rubbing his arm and stretching his fingers during second-half warmups.
“There’s a lot of stuff wrong with me right now,” Russell said. “I just cannot seem to get healthy 100 percent, but I’m battling through it.”
And he won the battle on this night. Russell caught fire in the second half, hitting an early driving layup and a 3-pointer. When Providence got close, trimming an 11-point deficit down to two, Russell watched his teammates answer, then hammered home the final nails. Three-pointers on consecutive possessions, sandwiched around a drawn charge, pushed the lead to 65-55. The second shot came as the shot clock wound down, with Russell fading from the corner into the URI bench. He would hit one more 3-pointer just over a minute later, threatening to blow the roof off his own house.
“It was fun, especially to do this with Jeff [Dowtin] and Cyril [Langevine], who mean a lot to me,” Russell said. “This was their last PC game.”
Russell finished with a game-high 24 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals. He has scored at least 20 points in seven consecutive games, something no URI player has done in two decades.
He had plenty of help, with Langevine recording a 17-point, 16-rebound double-double and Tyrese Martin scoring 10 points. Dowtin added eight points, and freshman Mekhi Long made a significant splash off the bench with nine points.
Russell has become the unquestioned ring-leader, though, and this was another night that belonged to him.
The success comes after last year’s rollercoaster. That ride ended on a high note, with Russell playing great basketball down the stretch last season, but it still fueled him throughout the offseason.
No wonder Russell remembered his loss to Providence more than his win.
“I struggled last year, and it opened my eyes,” Russell said. “I took the summer and just locked myself in the gym three, four times a day, and it’s paying off.”