PITTSBURGH – The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team is moving onto the 2017 Atlantic 10 Championship game tomorrow at noon after their 84-60 win over Davidson College on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.
The Rams won 74-63 on Friday afternoon versus St. Bonaventure in the quarterfinal to give them a spot in the semifinal matchup against the Wildcats.
Davidson had upset the number one seeded Dayton Flyers in the quarterfinals, which gave the Rams a chance to avoid a team they had already lost to twice this season and let them play a team they had beaten twice in Davidson.
Senior Hassan Martin and redshirt junior E.C. Matthews have led the charge for the Rams in both of their victories. In Friday’s contest, Matthews dropped a team-high 20 points and while also grabbing five rebounds. Martin finished the game right behind him with 19 points and eight boards. Matthews had 19 points against Davidson on Saturday while shooting a perfect 4-of-4 from 3-point range and 5-of-5 from the free throw line. Martin added 16 points and six rebounds to help Rhode Island secure the victory.
To get the win over Davidson, the Rams knew that they would have to stop senior Jack Gibbs, an arduous task as the point guard had scorched Rhode Island for 29 points in last week’s overtime clash before scoring 34 points against Dayton in the A-10 quarters. Gibbs, an all A-10 first team selection, makes up half of one of the highest scoring duos in college basketball alongside junior Peyton Aldridge.
Aldridge and Gibbs were certainly gassed coming into the Rhode Island game as Aldridge had played all 80 minutes between Davidson’s first two games. Gibbs had played 38 minutes in the Wildcats first contest versus La Salle and another 38 minutes in their quarterfinal matchup versus Dayton.
Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley did his homework and was able to contain the Aldridge-Gibbs duo but particularly Gibbs, who was held to 17 points on 4-of-12 shooting, and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc. URI had faced a similar threat in St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams in the previous round. Hurley said that the preparation for Gibbs was similar to the preparation of Adams.
“There was a lot of attention to him [Gibbs],” Hurley said. “In ball screens we were really blitzing him. We were willing to give him shots at the rim today. We knew he was banged up coming in. That guy is a total warrior. One of the best players I have ever coached against.”
The defense played well for the Rams against the Wildcats, but the most impressive part of their game was their perimeter shooting. Rhode Island finished Saturday’s game 12-of-20 from 3-point land. The Rams’ consistent shooting was not something that Hurley relied on but he certainly knew his squad was capable of shooting well.
“It was not the game plan,” Hurley said. “We went into the year thinking we would be a better shooting team than we were. But what has happened is we have games like this when we are on fire and then we have had games when we haven’t been able to throw it into the ocean.”
Rhode Island is coasting right now. The Rams have won seven straight games heading into the conference championship tomorrow. The Rams feel as if they are playing their best basketball at the right time.
“I think we are just now hitting our ceiling,” Matthews said following the semifinal victory. “We believe we are the best team in the conference. Every game we go out there and trust each other and make more winning plays than everybody.”
Martin is locked in on the next game. “Our confidence is feeling high right now,” the two-time reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year said.“We still have a lot to focus on in the next game and try to win it.”
URI has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows during the course of their 2016-2017 campaign. To finish their season as A-10 champions would automatically put the Rams in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999 and also avoid the ongoing talks of URI falling off the bubble and missing the tournament.
For Hurley, it is about doing something that he and the program have been working toward for the past five years.“We told our guys before the tournament started was that when we recruited you we never promised that we would win the Atlantic 10,” Hurley said. “We never promised them that we would play in the NCAA Tournament. What we told them was we would give them a great chance to do those things. When they wake up tomorrow they are going to have a great chance.”
As URI prepares for its potentially critical championship meeting with Virginia Commonwealth University, the team stays focused on what they can accomplish tomorrow. Matthews understands what is at stake tomorrow afternoon.
“Tomorrow we are going to leave it all on the court,” Matthews said.
Rhode Island tips off tomorrow at noon on CBS for a chance to capture their first A-10 title since 1999, thus completing the Hurley rebuilding effort.