The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team concluded their regular season with their NCAA Tournament aspirations still intact following a dramatic overtime victory over Davidson College on Senior Night.
Emotions were running high in the boisterous Ryan Center Saturday evening. The home crowd showed their appreciation for the departing Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin, the former a key contributor since his transfer from Memphis two seasons ago, and the latter being a four-year fixture and symbol of the turnaround the program has undergone since his arrival. The sentimental nature of the matchup was accompanied by a sense of desperation due to URI’s 21-9, 13-5) precarious position on the bubble in the race for the last couple of At-large bids in the NCAA Tournament.
The consensus was that the Rams would need to hold down the fort against the Wildcats (15-14, 8-10), who spoiled Rhode Island’s postseason plans in 2015, and looked primed to do it again. The game was symbolic for head coach Dan Hurley, representative of all that his team has gone through to get to this point.
“I think it was a microcosm of the season, Hurley said. “We’ve fought for our season the whole year and we did it today.”
The first half saw both teams trade leads as they made the game a battle of post moves and low paint penetration. Iverson did his part to keep the electricity high, scoring 11 points to lead all scorers in the first 20 minutes. Davidson’s duo of Jack Gibbs and Peyton Aldridge, who are first and second respectively in the Atlantic 10 Conference for scoring, combined for 17 points to build a 33-32 lead going into the break. Their ample offensive production was absent in the previous meeting on Feb. 3 as the the twosome combined for just 19 points on 5-of-22 shooting. Gibbs, in particular, has been a nightmare for URI having drilled a 3-pointer in 2015 to cost the Rams an A-10 regular season title as well as a potential berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“Jack Gibbs, he was on something else today,” Hurley said. “We remember him from two years ago. The degree of difficulty he was hitting on those threes, they were like NBA-level jumpshots. I can’t wait to not to have ever have to coach against him in this building again. There’s something in this building he likes.”
Davidson continued to ride the hot hand of Gibbs in the second half, as he exploded for 17 points on 4-of-6 shooting from behind the 3-point line to bring his total to a game-high 29. The senior guard helped his team build a nine-point lead, and stay in front for nearly the entire half. URI trailed 59-52 with four and a half minutes left in the game and possibly its season. Martin, sensing that his chance to go dancing in March was slipping away, knew it was time to jumpstart the stalling engine that was Rhode Island’s offense.
“We were down nine with like four minutes left, I just had to really pick up my guys,” Martin said. “I see guys folding, so I had to make some big plays to get everyone going again.”
Rhode Island delivered their fans the comeback they had been anxiously waiting for, as Jarvis Garrett kickstarted the run with a steal and assist to Stanford Robinson. The Rams chipped away at the lead, as it became apparent midway through the eventual 10-0 run that the complexion of the game had finally started to tip back in URI’s favor. The Rams ramped up their defensive pressure, and made Gibbs uncomfortable, as he missed three shots in a row while also coughing up the ball twice. Martin tied the game following a basket off of a steal and then gave the Rams a 61-59 lead with 46 seconds remaining.
The crowd went into a full frenzy after Davidson was forced to foul Robinson following an unsuccessful trip. The Rhody Ruckus then bared witness to a sequence of events they are all too familiar with, as Robinson went 1-of-2 from the free throw line which then allowed Gibbs to capitalize with a deep 3-pointer on the other end to tie the score at 62. The complete shock soon turned to panic following a five second violation on URI. Davidson center Will MaGarity looked to nail the coffin shut with an open look at the basket, but Robinson came over in time to make the game-saving block at the end of regulation.
He was fantastic,” Hurley said of Robinson, who had 10 points and two blocks off the bench. “That block he made at the end of (regulation), that was the winning play of all winning plays.”
The Rams leaned on E.C. Matthews in overtime, as he scored eight of his team’s 11 points. The redshirt junior looked to put the Wildcats away with a ferocious dunk to extend URI’s lead to 71-68 with 1:11 left to play. It was a symbolic moment for Matthews, who has struggled to regain his pre-injury form from two seasons ago. Martin was elated to see the player whom he has spent the last four years of his basketball life with have a breakthrough when the team needed it most.
“I’ve been telling him he’s the best player in the A-10 all year, it was nice to see him finally take over,” Martin said. “I had to keep being in his head, telling him ‘you the man, you the man, you’re gonna take us home.’ I built his confidence up and he just took over.”
Gibbs pulled his team within one on the ensuing possession, but in a gamble, head coach Bob McKillop opted not to foul with 36 seconds left, which allowed Matthews to provide added security for the Rams with another layup. Davidson had just 11 seconds to get the ball down the court and attempt another game-tying 3-pointer. The Rams had their opponents flustered and unable to find Gibbs, instead settling for Aldridge, who despite 19 points, missed all five of his shots from beyond the arc including the final one to bring the emotional rollercoaster to a halt.
The fans were sent home with a shot of adrenaline big enough to keep them up until Selection Sunday, as the atmosphere filled with jubilation. Martin, overcome with emotion, collapsed to the floor and kissed URI logo on the Alex and Ani court, soaking in every iota of the heartfelt moment that he shared with his teammates and fans.
“It was real emotional,” Martin said. “I know I’ll never play in this place again. After that game I just had to let it out. I couldn’t be a man and hold it anymore. I’m definitely going to miss it. I had to go kiss the floor goodbye.”
Martin had 21 points, 15 of which came in the second half and overtime, along with 17 rebounds, while fellow classmate Iverson also had a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards. It was a fitting end for the senior frontcourt stalwarts, both of whom Hurley knows will be difficult to replace going forward.
“They’re both going to have great careers in basketball, they’ve been model student athletes” Hurley said. “This (Iverson) maybe, to my left, the most energized, and vocal and verbal guy on a daily basis in practice, he’s really like the heartbeat of the team in practice. He’s become reliable and consistent. And Hass, this guy’s been the rock, a pillar that we built this thing around with E.C. in the beginning. You just don’t get to coach guys like Hassan Martin very often. Amazing two seniors, and they’re going to have great lives, successful careers and the whole thing.”
The Rams now prepare to do battle in their conference tournament. They are the No. 4 seed and will enjoy a double-bye before beginning play on Friday afternoon 2:30 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network against an opponent yet to be determined. Rhode Island currently remains on the fringe of the tourney bracket in many of the national projections, and may need to continue their run into Pittsburgh to ensure their spot among the field of 68.
“We’ve obviously got a lot of momentum,” Hurley said. “We’re confident going into the Atlantic 10 Tournament. I think I’m going to be coaching a really confident team that seems really determined right now to really do something special here at the end.”