The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team (19-9, 11-5) defeated Atlantic 10 stalwart Virginia Commonwealth University (23-6, 13-3) 69-59 this past Saturday afternoon, moving one step closer to earning a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s not a team or players that deserve a win like this more than these guys, head coach Dan Hurley said. “All the different things, the injuries, the expectations, different low-point losses that we’ve come back from this year. It just feels so good for the players, so good for the fans.”
The tension was palpable in the Ryan Center, with everyone fully aware of how important a victory against a top 30 team would be to make their case to the NCAA when the selection committee convenes on March 12. The stakes were at their highest for the ESPN2 match-up, as URI, after suffering several agonizing victories on their home floor, prepared to obtain a signature win against a conference foe.
Rhode Island started strong with Hassan Martin scoring the first eight points of the game on 3-of-3 shooting. Junior Jared Terrell led the team during a back-and-forth first half, scoring 11 points, along with a well-rounded effort consisting of five rebounds and three assists. Most of Terrell’s damage was done from the free throw line, as he struggled from the field, shooting just 2-of-9. He knocked down a mid-range jumper for his second field goal of the game to bring URI within one point, trailing 34-33, a deficit they would take into halftime. VCU was led by guard Jonathan Williams in the first half, who scored 12 points off of the bench.
The story of the first 20 minutes was foul trouble, as both teams combined for 29 fouls in the first half, and 55 for the game. The Rams were forced to send their fire starter Martin and season scoring leader E.C. Matthews to the bench after less than 10 minutes of action as they each picked up two early fouls. URI’s bench reinforcements did little to effectively fill the gaps, as they too found themselves the victims of the frequent blow of the whistle. The team, however, were able to stick to VCU and set up another competitive clash on the Alex and Ani Court.
“We had a lot of foul trouble,” Hurley said. “The game was still tight. We were attempting at a couple of different junctures to try to get E.C. and Hass (Martin) back in there, but we felt good. We were just able to keep it close, and we had a couple of our key players not in the game, and were down one, and we could have easily been up a possession or two.”
Martin and Matthews started the second half after the long layoff, with the former continuing his dominant performance with six more points in the first three minutes. Martin knew that he needed to lead by example against the deep, tough front court of VCU, and maintained his high-level intensity throughout.
“I just had to step up to the challenge,” Martin said. “Him (Alie-Cox), (Justin) Tillman, Hamdy (Mohamed) are big strong guys so I just had to hold my own and that’s what I did.”
The turning point of the game came when Terrell and redshirt junior guard Matthews began to heat up from behind the arc, contributing heavily to an 18-4 run to start the second half. The duo, starting with Terrell, alternated to make three straight 3-point jumpers to bring URI to their largest lead of the game at 51-38.
“For us, we were just able to make shots,” Terrell said of the scoring outburst. “That just gave us a lot of confidence throughout the second half, boost of energy and more effort on defense.”
Following their early second-half run, Rhode Island’s offense became stagnant, sitting at 56 points for almost six minutes straight, before junior guard Jarvis Garrett hit two free throws to give URI a 58-53 lead. Garrett came off the bench to provide 12 points, (all from the charity stripe), his highest scoring outing since returning from ulcerative colitis on Feb. 15 against Fordham University. Garrett’s effort contributed to the overall productive, 31-0f-39 free throw shooting afternoon for the Rams. It was a welcome sight for Hurley, who knows how hard the struggle has been for his point guard.
“His season got taken away from him with a debilitating illness and he’s been able to just stay positive,” Hurley said. “What we talked about yesterday with him was don’t be discouraged that you can’t give us everything you’re capable of giving us. Can you give us 18 minutes of really great play? Can you give us a shot in the arm? And 12-for-12 from the line is a big-time performance.”
URI would breakaway in the final five minutes of the game, remaining efficient from the line while pulling down important rebounds, a category that was one sided for URI at 48 to 31. Hurley was ecstatic with his team’s ability to close out a big game against a top conference opponent on their home floor comparing it to the Dayton game that got away.
“Obviously thrilled with the win, it was a big game, and it’s great to win a big game at home,” Hurley said. “We were in a similar situation against the other blue blood in our conference here. The difference between the two games was not letting this one off the hook.”
Martin finished the game with a double-double of 17 points and 18 rebounds, a career high, along with two blocks. Terrell was Rhode Island’s leading scorer, also finishing the game with a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds, the second of his career.
URI sits in a tie for third place in the A-10 with the University of Richmond, with a double-bye in the A-10 Tournament available only for the top four teams. Their next test will be a road matchup with Saint Joseph’s University this Wednesday night at 7 p.m., as they look to build their growing momentum heading into the conference tournament season.