SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Nine straight wins. Second place in the Atlantic 10. Votes in Top 25 polls. NCAA Tournament buzz. A sold-out Ryan Center.
These are great times in Kingston, and the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball is both savoring the moment and rising to meet it.
“Nine in a row. That’s a great feat for these guys, but there’s so much more that we want,” head coach David Cox said.
Friday night, the moment called for a high-level performance. A big-name team was in town with a capacity crowd cheering and a national television audience watching. The Rams came through, dominating the first half against VCU and holding on in the second for an 87-75 win.
The moment wasn’t so big on Tuesday. The Rams needed to keep a young, upset-minded team at bay, and they did that, too, beating UMass 73-67.
Now it’s on to George Washington, with a trip to first-place Dayton looming next week.
“Our motto is we’re trying to literally get better every day,” Cox said. “I know it sounds like a cliché. You’re probably getting tired of hearing it. We’re trying to get better. Wherever we end up, at the very least, we’ll be content that we gave our best effort, every day in practice. We’re trying to get better. We’re trying to climb a mountain right now and we’re locked in on the prize.”
Friday’s win gave URI the season sweep of VCU, another NCAA Tournament hopeful. The first victory came on Jan. 11, when the Rams were still working out the kinks after a two-game slide that included a loss to Brown and a defeat in the Atlantic 10 opener to Richmond. Twenty days later, they entered the game riding high and played like it in building a 49-27 halftime lead.
It was URI at its very best, the embodiment of what they felt they could be all along. Lockdown defense was paired with high-flying offense and the result was a demolition.
“The winning has changed things, but we anticipated, back in October and November, that we would be an NCAA Tournament caliber team,” Cox said. “We’re obviously not there yet. We’ve got a long season still to go – there’s a third of the season left. But we’re not necessarily surprised by where we’re at, and that’s not to sound overconfident. I just believe in these guys.”
Senior Jeff Dowtin spurred the first half explosion, pouring in 15 points in a little over four minutes. A five-point lead was suddenly 20, and the Ryan Center was rocking.
“You just get in a different zone, a different type of rhythm,” Dowtin said. “Confident. Just keep shooting when you see one go in. I just fed off the crowd and just had everything going at the time.”
Fatts Russell ended up leading the Rams with 30 points. Tyrese Martin added 18 and Cyril Langevine scored 11.
The win set the stage for additional votes in the Associated Press Top 25 and the first votes for the Rams in the coaches poll. NCAA Tournament projections shifted abruptly, as the Rams moved from the bubble to safely in the field in most brackets.
The added buzz means avoiding missteps is even more crucial, and that was the task for URI on Tuesday night. UMass never let the Rams pull away, using a huge game from freshman star Tre Mitchell and a zone defense that occasionally threw URI off to make things interesting. The Rams had enough down the stretch, showing maturity and no panic.
“Another conference victory. I’ll take that,” Cox said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the prettiest of wins, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Russell scored 21 points, Dowtin tallied 16 and Langevine scored 15, including his 1,000th career point. All three are now in the 1,000-point club. That alone makes it no surprise that the Rams are in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
“Those are huge accomplishments,” Cox said. “You’ve got to throw in assists and steals, rebounds and blocks. It’s not just the points. They have stuffed the stat sheets since they’ve been here, and they’ve been winning. As they go, we go.”
And they’ve been going emphatically in the right direction.
The Rams hope it continues.
“We just have one goal,” Dowtin said. “Keep on winning, keep playing together and we’ll just see what happens from there. We’ll keep fighting, keep pushing.”