Off a brutal loss and without Fatts Russell, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team was in survival mode on Sunday.
Even that was a grind, but URI ultimately came away with a 52-42 victory over a Fordham team with just one win to its name this season.
“As long as we defended to stay in the game, we knew our shots were going to come along sooner or later,” said senior guard Jeremy Sheppard.
Russell was sidelined by a core muscle injury suffered in Wednesday’s loss at Duquesne, where the Rams blew a 17-point first-half lead. Rhody’s offensive attack was out of sorts in his absence, particulary in a 23-point first half that ended with Fordham up by five. The struggles continued for much of the second half before a 12-0 run finally tilted the scales. URI held Fordham to 14 second-half points and just four over the last 11 minutes.
“I thought we played elite defense for most of the game, but particularly in the second half,” URI head coach David Cox said. “That was the difference in the game, as we kind of found our way offensively. The turnover bug still kind of reared its ugly head. We didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half, although we got some really good looks. The one thing that kept us in the game early was our defensive effort and intensity. We picked it up to a whole new level in the second half and it allowed us to come out of here with a victory.”
URI goes to 8-8 overall and 5-4 in A-10 play.
The first half was second-only to URI’s matchup with Wisconsin for futility this season. Fordham is far from the top-10 Badgers, though Rhody has often endedup in slugfests against their Ram counterparts from the Bronx. Russell’s absence added fuel to the fire. It was decided Friday that he would sit out, and the adjustment was understandably rough. URI shot 32 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
“He knows the offense through and through. That was the probably the biggest issue we had today - just running our offense fluidly,” Cox said. “We have a lot of sets and different nuances, and he’s adept at them. He’s played under my system for three years, and nobody else - especially with the ball in their hand - has had that luxury. Just continuity. He orchestrates everything like a true senior leader should.”
Fordham averages just 51 points per game, worst in the nation, though its lone victory came against Dayton. URI ultimately held the Bronx Rams below their average and eventually found enough offense to pull away.
“We haven’t blown out anybody all year,” Cox said. “If you watch the league, you see upsets all over the place. We don’t come into any game thinking blowout. We come in thinking about a win. We knew it would be a grind-it-out game against a team that beat Dayton.”
After the bad first half, it got worse for URI before it got better. A 3-pointer by Fordham’s Josh Navarro provided the first points of the second half, bumping the lead to eight before Ishmael Leggett and Allen Betrand led a 6-0 burst that steadied URI. The 3-pointer by Navarro ended up as Fordham’s only bucket in the first 4:58 of the second half.
“We really talked about the first four minutes,” Cox said of the halftime message. “We said, ‘If those guys continue to play harder than us, not only are they going to believe they can win this game, they’re going to have the momentum.’ We had to come out in those first four minutes, particularly at the defensive end, and establish ourselves. I thought we did that.”
Fordham managed to stay ahead or tied until two free throws by Leggett with 8:14 left. After briefly losing the lead with 7:11 remaining, URI surged on 3-pointers by Betrand, Leggett and Sheppard and an alley-opp dunk by Antwan Walker off a Sheppard assist.
“I feel like we all play well even when Fatts isn’t on the floor,” Sheppard said. “We’re all talented. We just weren’t hitting shots. We weren’t playing at our own pace, letting them speed us up a little bit. We weren’t executing all of our sets. That’s what played a big factor in the second half - we came out calm, playing at our own pace, and we eventually started to knock down shots.”
URI made five of its last seven shots to finish at 42 percent from the field in the second half, while limiting Fordham to just six field goals at a 22-percent clip.
Sheppard led the Rams with 16 points while Leggett - who drew the start for Russell - scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. He added seven rebounds and was the kind of presence URI needed to break out.
“He was flying through the air, grabbing the ball from bigs, diving on the floor,” Cox said. “That gives energy to everybody. It was really important that he did that today. Huge step from him as a freshmen, and we needed all that he gave us tonight - every point, every rebound, every loose ball.”
Cox is hopeful that Russell will be back for Wednesday’s trip to Philadelphia and La Salle. The senior has had some of his biggest games in his hometown.
“Fatts in Philadelphia? You answer that one,” Cox said when asked if Russell would return Wednesday. “I would imagine, unless they take his leg off or the doctor orders him to stay out of the game, I have to imagine he would play. I’ll have to talk to our trainer and Fatts to see where they are, but I would imagine he’s going to give it his best effort, being back in Philly for one of his last go-rounds.”