SOUTH KINGSTOWN - The highest scoring first half of the season gave way to a second-half slog for the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday night.
The Rams wouldn’t have scripted that change, but they were OK with it.
URI navigated a bumpy stretch while making things even bumpier for St. Joe’s, then eventually pulled away for a 75-64 victory at the Ryan Center to go to 1-1 in Atlantic 10 play.
“The game of basketball is a game of ebbs and flows. Just because you score 40 in the first half doesn’t mean you’re going to score 100 for the game,” head coach David Cox said. “Teams make adjustments. Their big adjustment was to get into their three-quarter court press to slow us down and break our rhythm. But what I am really proud about is the fact that we stayed focused on the defensive end for 40 minutes today. That’s why we prevailed.”
The Rams were coming off a loss to Davidson in their long-awaited A-10 opener, which had been postponed three separate times due to COVID-19 issues in Kingston and on the part of several opponents. St. Joe’s came in as a dangerous team, boasting the A-10’s top NBA prospect in Jordan Hall and holding a resume that includes a 27-point win at Richmond.
Rhody built a lead thanks to its largest point total in a first half all year. The Rams shot 51 percent from the field and logged an assist on 13 of their 18 field goals, while losing just five turnovers. Makhel Mitchell was 7-for-8 from the field on his way to 14 points.
The half was without a run of more than five points by either team, until URI scored seven straight to break a 33-33 tie. Jeremy Sheppard started the run with a 3-pointer and Malik Martin followed with four straight points. Ishmael El-Amin’s 3-pointer with 1:13 left made it 43-35 before a bucket by the Hawks made it a six-point game at halftime.
“We had 13 assists on 18 field goals at the half which is probably a career high since I’ve been coaching,” Cox said. “And we sustained that effort in the second half. We’re playing the right way and we’re getting better.”
After a hot start by St. Joe’s, the Rhody defense had its say for the rest of the half, limiting the Hawks to 6-of-15 shooting over the final 14 minutes.
St. Joe’s got hot again early in the second half, making its first four shots, before going ice cold. The Hawks went 10:07 without a field goal and missed 13 consecutive shots.
URI had significant struggles of its own but its defense never wavered.
“I thought the team had a tremendous focus this week in practice,” Cox said. “They executed the game plan. This is a team in St. Joe’s that averages 27 3-point attempts per game. Our game plan was to guard the heck out of that 3-point line and funnel them into tough 2’s. That’s exactly what we did. I’m just proud of the guys for following the game plan after a tough road loss against Davidson.”
And eventually, the Rams regained control. A 3-pointer by Jalen Carey ended a five-minute scoreless drought and broke a 57-57 tie. Later, Jeremy Sheppard buried a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:12 remaining to put the Rams up 67-60. That was the start of a game-ending 11-4 run for the Rams.
“The big guy left me for the second time. I thought he was crazy for that,” Sheppard said of the big shot. “Got to take that one.”
Mitchell led the Rams with 15 points. He had a quiet second half that included a technical foul, his second in as many games, putting a damper on what was shaping up to be a strong performance.
“He’s got to continue to grow and continue to mature,” Cox said. “In certain circumstances and it’s not just him, but the competitiveness gets the best of him. He’s got to learn and he’s got to have more balance. We talk to him from a coach’s point of view, from a father’s point of view, from a mentor’s point of view. Not just the game of basketball, but in life, if you have reactions like that, it could put you in some tough circumstances. We’ll continue to talk to him about that and the team will continue to talk to him and rally around him, but he’s got to get better in that regard.”
Sheppard added 13 points and Makhi Mitchell scored 12. Malik Martin just missed a double-double, finishing with nine points and 12 rebounds.
URI is slated to visit UMass on Saturday. With COVID issues still cropping up for teams around the country, the Rams are glad to be back but not getting ahead of themselves.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead,” Cox said. “No jinxes here. I hope we can practice tomorrow and then the next day and then we’ll worry about Saturday. But it does feel good to get back and to be playing. I hope that we can continue to do this.”