A stirring comeback wasn’t enough to get the University of Rhode Island a second straight road win.
Trailing by 15 points with nine-and-a-half minutes remaining Wednesday night at UMass, the Rams came all the way back to force overtime but fell just short in the extra session, losing 80-78. UMass made three free throws in the final 25 seconds and Antwan Walker missed a cutting layup at the buzzer that would have tied the game.
“We played well enough down the stretch to get the victory,” URI head coach David Cox said. “Just didn’t make enough plays.”
The loss continued an uneven ride in Atlantic 10 play for the Rams, who fell to 3-3 in conference play and 6-7 overall. UMass - which came in losing seven of its last eight to URI - improved to 3-1 in A-10 play.
Rhody was coming off perhaps its best conference win of the season, a road victory at VCU, but struggled to build on it for much of Wednesday’s game. A shaky first half gave way to a painful eight-minute rough patch in the second half. UMass built its lead over that span.
The comeback push got URI back into the game, and Allen Betrand forced overtime on a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left. The Rams led in the extra session on a D.J. Johnson 3-pointer with 42 seconds remaining but didn’t score again, losing a turnover and missing the shot at the buzzer.
“Tough loss. Hard-fought loss,” Cox said. “I thought we battled back. We showed some fight, some toughness, some resiliency. We’ve got two senior guards and we put it in their hands at the end of the game. We turned it over, which has been our achilles heel all year. Even after that, we had a layup at the rim that we missed. I’ve got to give credit to Matt [McCall] and UMass for securing the victory at home.”
The Minutemen led by as many as nine points in the first half, taking advantage of eight URI turnovers for 14 fast-break points. Open looks were easy to come by in the halfcourt, too, though URI ramped up its defensive effort in the final four minutes, working back from the nine-point deficit to get within three. UMass ended a three-minute drought with the final three points of the half for a 37-31 lead.
The Rams actually started well in the second half, using an 8-2 run to tie the game, but bottomed out soon after. Seven turnovers in eight minutes set the table for UMass to outscore URI 20-5 en route to a 59-44 lead. The Minutemen would go on to take a 62-47 lead with 9:35 left. While the Rams limited turnovers in the final 10 minutes, they still finished with 20. Issues in that department have been a recurring theme.
“Just turnovers - dribbling the ball too much, some bad decision making, trying to dribble the ball through their press,” Cox said. “They showed us three or four different pressures and unfortunately we didn’t handle it well at that time.”
URI’s comeback push began with a Jeremy Sheppard layup, a 3-pointer from Johnson and three dunks in two minutes for Makhel Mitchell, the last of which made it an 11-0 run and got the Rams within four. UMass star Tre Mitchell - the A-10’s leading scorer - was on the bench with four fouls and the Rams took full advantage.
“We mixed up our defense, gave them a different look, threw them off their rhythm,” Cox said. “It gave us a chance to win.”
UMass regained a six-point edge with 1:48 left before some big buckets down the stretch by the Rams. Johnson drilled a 3 with 1:35 left and Betrand followed a missed free throw with a bucket with 1:10 left. After UMass went up 72-69 with 40 seconds to go, Betrand hit a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game. Noah Fernandes missed a 3 for the Minutemen and Mitchell missed a putback as time expired.
The overtime session was a struggle for both teams early, with no points on the board for the first three minutes. When the seal finally broke, UMass grabbed a 77-75 lead ahead of Johnson’s 3-pointer that put URI in front. Mitchell then drilled two free throws to make it 79-78. Sheppard drove to the basket on URI’s next trip and lost the ball. Carl Pierre made one of two free throws with six seconds left to make it 80-78.
“Obviously, down one with the ball in our hands, we can’t turn the ball over like that,” Cox said.
Fatts Russell, the hero of URI’s overtime win over St. Joe’s a few weeks ago, had the ball in the final seconds and found Walker cutting down the lane for a good look at the tie.
“He just missed a layup,” Cox said. “I’m not sure he could dunk it, the distance he was coming from. He took off a little bit far so he tried to go with the layup.”
For the second straight year, there was postgame shoving between the rivals after the final buzzer.
Makhel Mitchell scored a career-high 23 points for the Rams, to go with six rebounds. That he did so against one of the top big men in the A-10 made it the top bright spot for the Rams.
“I thought he posted hard, he made real post moves and honestly, I thought he played as well as he could on Tre,” Cox said. “Tre is a really, really good player. I think the times he took advantage of Makhel were the times Makhel got tired. Outside of that, I thought he did a really good job all the way around today.”
Russell scored 12 points, while Betrand and Johnson rode their hot outside shooting to 11 points apiece. Tre Mitchell was held to 16 for the Minutemen - after scoring 30 and 34 in two games versus URI last year - but Ronnie DeGray III picked up the slack with 23 points.