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Makhel Mitchell

The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team made good memories in Pittsburgh a few years ago, winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament there in 2017 and earning an NCAA Tournament victory in the same building in 2018.

But the Rams would like to forget their last two trips to the Steel City.

For the second time in three seasons, Rhody blew a significant lead against Duquesne on Wednesday night. In 2019, it was a 19-point cushion that turned into a three-point loss. This time, the Rams led by as many as 17 in the first half, by 13 at the break and were still up 10 with 10 minutes to go. The Dukes surged from there for a 71-69 victory.

“All we talked about the outset of the game was our defensive effort, and we came out with a tremendous first half defensive effort,” URI head coach David Cox said. “Obviously, with my experiences at Duquesne two years ago when we were up 20, the only thing I could think about at the half was letting them know about that, reminding them about how we got the lead, talking about our mentality and how we needed to come out in the second half. And we literally did just the opposite.”

The repeat was especially disappointing given the trajectory URI hoped it was on. After a heartbreaking loss to UMass, the Rams rolled over George Mason with a dominant second half on Saturday and delivered more of the same in the first 20 minutes on Wednesday. It came crashing down in the second half as that trajectory now dips back toward the unknown.

URI is 7-8 overall and 4-4 in Atlantic 10 play.

“Extremely disappointing,” Cox said. “We took a very immature approach. Up 13 points, it’s almost as if our guys thought these guys were going to roll over. That’s a tough, heartbreaking loss at this point of the year.”

The 2019 collapse at Duquesne had been avenged last year, when URI returned the favor with a comeback from eight down for a 22-point win at the Ryan Center. The return trip to Pittsburgh took the Rams to a different venue - Duquesne is playing at LaRoche College while renovations to the Palumbo Center continue - but they still couldn’t exorcise the demons.

To power the comeback, the Dukes shot a blistering 65 percent in the second half and were 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. They made 10 of their final 12 field goal attempts and finished the game at 50 percent from the field, becoming the first team to shoot better than 45 percent against URI all season.

“We came out with no urgency, kind of traded buckets,” Cox said. “They cut the lead. There was a momentum switch. They pounded the ball inside, which we knew they would do. They were much more effective in the second half . . . There were no adjustments [by Duquesne]. They ran the same sets. They just threw the ball inside consistently. And their guys were effective against our guys.”

URI had reached the 17-point lead on a D.J. Johnson 3-pointer with 53 seconds left in the first half. A flagrant 1 foul on Antwan Walker for a push in the backcourt set Duquesne up to score the final four points of the half, making it 44-31 at the break.

The lead remained in double digits through the 12-minute mark, but Duquesne’s push was underway at that point. Beginning with a putback by Michael Hughes with 11:32 to go, the Dukes didn’t miss a shot from the field until there was 4:14 remaining. The hot streak included a 13-3 run that erased a nine-point lead and put the Dukes up 66-65.

A Makhel Mitchell dunk with 5:05 remaining put the Rams back in front, but they wouldn’t make another field goal. The Dukes also cooled down, but after two Fatts Russell free throws gave URI a 69-68 lead, Ryan Murphy hit a pull-up jumper with 1:02 left to put the Dukes in front for good.

Russell missed a floater and Mitchell couldn’t get the putback to go on URI’s next trip. After one free throw by the Dukes, a missed runner by Russell was rebounded by URI, which led to a 3-point try at the buzzer by Johnson that caromed off the rim.

URI ended up missing its last eight field-goal attempts and had three turnovers over the same span. They lost 13 turnovers overall, after making progress in that department against George Mason.

“We didn’t play with a whole lot of efficiency down the stretch,” Cox said. “That hurts, especially on the road. We’ve got to do a much better job.”

Mitchell continued his breakout with 16 points and 11 rebounds for his second straight double-double. Russell had 13 points and six assists. Walker scored 10 points. Duquesne’s Chad Baker made all five of his 3-point tries en route to a game-high 19 points.

URI’s game against George Washington on Sunday has been postponed due to a COVID pause for the Colonials, but Cox said the A-10 is working on having the Rams face Fordham on Sunday instead. The teams are still awaiting confirmation.

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