If Sunday's game was the last stop in a challenging non-conference slate, it was a fitting conclusion, as the University of Rhode Island men's basketball team ended up in another grind.
Conference USA favorite Western Kentucky built an early lead and held off the Rams down the stretch for a 68-65 victory at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green.
It was the final non-conference game currently on the schedule for the Rams, though they could make an addition if the opportunity arose. With Atlantic 10 play set to open Friday, they sit at 3-4, all their losses decided by 11 points or less against a strength of schedule that ranks among the top 25 in the country.
“At this point of the year, we're not that interested in records. Obviously, we go out every game to win, but it's a process,” head coach David Cox said. “We're trying to get better every single game. We needed to test ourselves in this non-conference season, particularly since we weren't sure how many games we would have. We wanted to get the best seven or eight games we could get, and I think we got that. Now we know. We've got a lot of work to do, obviously, but I think it's also evident that we can play with just about anybody.”
That was the case against the Hilltoppers, who represented a sneaky resume-building opportunity for the Rams. It wasn't quite at the level of Wednesday's game at No. 13 Wisconsin or the early-season tilt with Arizona State, but a positive result would have yielded a quality win for URI. Western Kentucky features potential NBA lottery pick Charles Bassey and has lost only to West Virginia and Louisville this season.
A slow start put the Rams in an early hole. They missed their first six shots and committed four turnovers in the first five minutes of the game. Their first points didn't come until the 14:23 mark, as Western Kentucky grabbed a 9-0 lead.
Bassey would finish with only 13 points, but he blocked five shots, and his presence loomed large.
“To be honest, I think Bassey might have spooked our guys a little bit, early,” Cox said. “He's a tremendous, tremendous presence in that paint, a tremendous shot blocker. We were kind of tip-toeing around the first five minutes of the game.”
A steal and layup by Fatts Russell started a 6-0 burst for the Rams, who shook off the bad start to make eight of their next 11 shots. But another drought struck late in the first half, with URI hitting only two of their final nine shots before the break.
Similar ups and downs took hold in the second half. The Rams fell behind by as many as 11, then worked their way back with Bassey sitting on the bench due to foul trouble. A 15-3 run gave them a 52-51 lead, capped by a driving leaner from Ishmael Leggett. Five quick points put the Hilltoppers back in front.
URI came back to tie the game at 64-64 on a fast-break bucket by Russell with 47 seconds left. A good defensive possession followed, but Bassey came up with a loose ball as the shot clock dipped down, which led to a shot in the lane. Bassey followed up the miss with the go-ahead bucket with 11 seconds remaining.
“Had a chance down the stretch,” Cox said. “Loose ball, fifty-fifty ball. Bassey came up with it and they ended up scoring a bucket there. That was pretty much the game.”
Jalen Carey was fouled with five seconds left and hit one of two free throws to make it a one-point game. Two Taveion Hollingswroth free throws put the Hilltoppers up three. Russell was fouled with 1.9 seconds left and missed the front end of the one-and-one, with the rebound bouncing away as time expired.
“Hard-fought game,” Cox said. “Proud of the guys for their fight. Disappointed in the loss obviously, but I thought our guys battled. That's a very, very good team. They come at you in waves. Well-coached. There's a lot of talent on that team. We battled through a couple of injuries. Our guys came off the bench and stepped up.”
URI's D.J. Johnson led all scorers with a career-high 16 points. He sparked several of URI's comeback attempts, hitting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.
“Huge lift, on both ends of the floor,” Cox said. “Obviously, he knocked down some jumpers, which were huge for us. But his length down there on the defensive end helped out as well.”
Russell finished with 14 points and was bothered by a heel injury that Cox said has been an issue for the last few games.
“He's a tough kid,” Cox said. “He won't succumb to any type of injury or pain. He's going to give it 100 percent. So that's a little bit of it. And he's the focal point every single night. They're denying him, they're sending bodies at him in ball screens and dribble handoffs, they're not letting him turn the corner. He's getting the business right now.”
URI also lost sophomore forward Makhi Mitchell to an injury in the first half. He appeared to clip an opposing player's foot while running up the court and had to be helped off. He did not return, though he was spotted on the bench wearing a knee brace. Cox had no update in the postgame video conference.
Western Kentucky out-rebounded URI 38-28 and made 21 of 26 free throws. URI was 11-of-15 at the line.
Conference play begins for the Rams on Friday when Davidson visits the Ryan Center.
“I think where this non-conference has gotten us will bode well for A-10 play,” Cox said. “Now we turn our minds to Davidson, who has been a tough opponent for us the last couple of years.”