SOUTH KINGSTOWN - The University of Rhode Island’s first game against Massachusetts this season brought heartbreak.
The second was all frustration.
Down two of their top three scorers, the Minutemen sent URI to its third straight loss, 75-62, on Saturday night at the Ryan Center. The Rams got a career night from Antwan Walker, but stumbled again and again, failing to make a 3-pointer in a game for the first time in 10 years, erasing good stretches with droughts and struggling to contain shooters. Paired with an overtime win in January, the result locked up the first sweep of the Rams by UMass since the 2013-14 season.
“Bad loss. Just a bad loss,” head coach David Cox said. “We didn’t have the right energy tonight. I’m not sure why we didn’t have the right energy tonight. We had two good practices coming up to this point. We had a disappointing loss against VCU. We were worried about having a little hangover in practices but we came out and practiced well.”
URI is mired in its second three-game slide of the season, this one beginning a week ago with a second-half fade against Dayton. VCU rallied past URI on Wednesday with a last-second 3-pointer. UMass did its part despite being without star center Tre Mitchell and guard Noah Fernandes.
“We schemed a lot for Tre Mitchell up until game day when we heard he wasn’t playing,” Cox said. “We probably should have put a little more attention on those perimeter players, who really went to work on us today. I’ve got to give them credit. Carl Pierre has always played really well against us. Both of their freshmen, [Ronnie] DeGray and [Cairo] McCrory were really good for them tonight. And we just didn’t play with the right energy and the right mindset, specifically on the defensive end and it cost us tonight.”
Walker had the Rams on his back at times, delivering career-highs of 26 points and 14 rebounds.
“He had an awesome night,” Cox said.
Walker made 12 of his 17 field-goal attempts; the rest of the Rams were just 15 of 49. They went 0-for-10 from beyond the arc, the first time since Nov. 27, 2011 against Cleveland State that they didn’t make a 3-pointer.
“When we were 0-for-4 at the half, I felt pretty good about the looks that we got and felt like we weren’t forcing those 3s,” Cox said. “I just figured they would fall in the second half and they didn’t. Yeah, 0-for-10 from 3 really hurts.”
URI led for much of the first half before UMass scored seven points in a row down the stretch and went to the break up 37-32. A 12-0 surge by the Rams in the second half went for naught when UMass answered right back. After the Rams worked back to make it 53-53, the Minutemen outscored them 22-10 over the final 9:54.
UMass missed its first seven 3-point tries but hit above 50 percent the rest of the way. Carl Pierre sank five 3s on his way to 19 points. The Minutemen finished with nine 3-pointers.
A dunk by Makhel Mitchell off an Ishmael Leggett steal started the 12-0 run for URI early in the second half, which turned an eight-point deficit into a 47-43 lead. Mitchell added another bucket in the post before Fatts Russell and Jeremy Sheppard scored on the break. A steal and thunderous dunk by Walker gave URI its first lead since the 4:39 mark of the first half.
The lead lasted about two minutes - and was never regained.
Two buckets by McCrory led the first response for UMass. Off the 53-53 tie, it was a 3-pointer by Pierre that got the Minutemen moving. URI made only three field goals in the final 9:54. Another 3 by Pierre upped the UMass lead to eight, before a 10-0 run sent the Minutemen on their way. URI did not make a field goal for the final 5:12.
“I thought we kind of hit a stride there. We started the first war in that second half playing some solid defense, got close,” Cox said. “The next four minutes continued along those lines. I felt we had some pretty good momentum going. We talked about it going into that 12-minute war - how important it was, how it was a pivotal four minutes and how we were going to have to go out there and stake our claim. And we did just the opposite.”
Russell returned from an ankle injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s game. His three steals moved him into a tie for second-place on the school’s all-time list, behind Ram great Tyson Wheeler, who was in the building as a UMass assistant.
URI will have a difficult task as it tries to stop its skid. The Rams visit Atlantic 10 title contender St. Louis on Wednesday. They’ll also be on the road next Saturday at Davidson, who beat them in the A-10 opener.
“This streak has been tough,” Cox said. “We’ve got two more doozys next week, so we’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to work and we’ve got to get that urgency back on a day-to-day basis. Again, coming off the VCU game, I thought we showed tremendous fight and just came up short. Perhaps this was a little bit of a hangover from that. That’s something I have to look into and address.”