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Jeremy Sheppard takes a shot in Tuesday's season opener. 

SOUTH KINGSTOWN - The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team didn’t always assert its will last season.

Holding a measure of control against a quality opponent in the season opener was a welcome sight.

With their defense setting the tone, the Rams never trailed against Patriot League preseason favorite Boston University and held off a final push down the stretch for a 71-62 victory on Tuesday night at the Ryan Center.

“I was really impressed, particularly in the first half, with the defense,” said David Cox, who recorded the 50th win of his head coaching career. “They’re a veteran team, so we weren’t going to hold these guys to that type of output in both halves. I figured they would have a run in them. But the first half, the energy really set the tone and set the pace. We were able to go into halftime with a comfortable lead, kind of held on for a while, and then these guys really showed up big to help secure the victory.”

The Rams are aiming to reestablish their defensive identity this season and got that effort off to a strong start. The Terriers missed their first four shots and lost five turnovers in the first four minutes of the game. They never pushed their shooting percentage out of the 30s and finished with 19 turnovers, as URI snagged 13 steals. The Rams also blocked 10 shots.

Graduate transfer Ishmael El-Amin drew the primary assignment on Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year Javante McCoy and made life difficult. McCoy missed his first six shots from the field. Though he finished with a game-high 19 points, he needed 15 shots to do it.

“That team is a very, very good team,” Cox said. “I think that win will come back and pay major dividends for us. I think they’ll win the Patriot League or be one of the top two. It’s a veteran team, a well-coached team. It’s the type of win, game one, that you want. I’m proud of these guys for their fight.”

URI’s offense wasn’t the most fluid in the slow-paced game, but the Rams did enough, despite 17 turnovers of their own. A 10-2 run early in the first half was their biggest of the night and it put the lead into a range where it remained for most of the game. The Rams went to halftime with a nine-point cushion and nursed it to the finish line.

The Terriers got as close as four as the clock ticked toward two minutes, but a steal by Ishmael Leggett and a 3-pointer by El-Amin with 1:07 remaining restored order.

“It felt good, just making a play for my team,” El-Amin said. “The score was dwindling down, they made some good baskets, we hadn’t scored in a little while. I was able to put the ball in the basket for my team. Just excited. Making winning plays - that’s what winners do.”

El-Amin and Leggett teamed up to make eight consecutive free throws over the final 45 seconds to secure the victory. Makhi Mitchell had two blocks in the final 1:33.

The Rams attempted only six 3-pointers, focusing their attack inside, where they finished with 34 points in the paint. Leggett scored a team-high 18 points and added three steals. Sheppard had 12 points and also grabbed three steals. El-Amin scored 13 in his official URI debut. Those three earned starts in the backcourt and carried the day for the Rams.

“These three guys had an outstanding day, on both ends of the floor,” Cox said. “Defensively, they were dynamic. The ball pressure was all over the place. They got deflections. And obviously, they ignited our offense. Some big free throws down the stretch.”

Mitchell joined them in double figures as he made his return from a knee injury last season. The Rams used a nine-man rotation for most of the game. Jalen Carey scored six points off the bench, and Malik Martin had five.

URI shot 49 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free-throw line.

An announced crowd of 5,133, including a large student contingent, enjoyed the victory, and the Rams enjoyed seeing them. It was the first game at the Ryan Center with fans since March of 2019.

“It was good to be back here in front of all these fans,” Cox said. “The student section was electric tonight. They paid huge dividends for us, especially in the second half, when they made their run. The student section pushed us over the hump.”

URI will welcome in-state foe Bryant to the Ryan Center on Friday night, in the first game of a doubleheader with the Rhody women's team. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.

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