The University of Rhode Island’s men’s basketball team beat Oklahoma because of the best asset it has on the court.
It wasn’t EC Matthews, the Rams’ senior guard, who hit two huge 3-pointers in overtime.
It wasn’t Fatts Russell, Rhody’s tiny freshman who has a hint of Iverson – not talking Kuran either – in his game and looked like he wanted everyone to know he, not Oklahoma’s future lottery pick Trae Young, was the best freshman on the court.
It wasn’t Cyril Langevine, the ultimate hustler who, despite being a 50 percent free throw shooter, made all four when the Rams needed him the most.
It wasn’t Jeff Dowtin, the steady sophomore point guard. It wasn’t senior Jared Terrell, the toughest on the team. It wasn’t Stan Robinson, wasn’t Andre Berry or Jarvis Garrett or even coach Dan Hurley.
URI’s best asset is when the above-listed parts come together to work as a whole. The Rams aren’t carried by one or two players and in games where one or two guys decide to try and do that, things go poorly. There were stretches in Thursday’s 83-78 overtime win over Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament where players overextended themselves and tried to cure a rough stretch with one or two quick shots or make a big play on defense.
That’s not Rhode Island.
The Rams need all the pieces to come together.
And that’s why the Rams have a matchup Saturday against No. 2 seed Duke and a chance to get back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since Tyson and Cuttino manned the backcourt.
Thursday could have been a loss.
Take EC Matthews. He wasn’t good Thursday. Quite the contrary.
But when URI needed the senior, he came through. There wasn’t anyone in the actual state of Rhode Island who wanted him to shoot when he made the 3-pointer to give the Rams a 74-72 lead with 1:54 left in overtime and everyone at Snookers in Providence moaned when he let a 3 fly with 28 seconds left before screaming when it snapped twice.
It was OK that Matthews struggled because he had help, whether it was Jeff Dowtin or Jarvis Garrett or, in the second half, Fatts Russell, America’s newest NCAA Tournament darling.
The freshman boasts the size of a middle schooler and the stones of any clutch player you could think of. It’s no coincidence the Rams took their second-half lead after he checked in with 10:36 left.
All of 93 seconds later, URI took its first lead of the half with a 3 by Matthews, assisted by Russell. The freshman stayed close on Trae Young after Matthews’ shot dropped, stole the inbound pass, and instead of waiting for helping or trying to drive the hoop, simply stepped up and hit a 3-pointer from the right wing that nearly broke Twitter.
Russell spent most of the remainder of the half demanding the ball. It needed to be in his hands because as he’s made abundantly clear, he is the best offensive player the Rams have and he needs the ball as much as possible. Without Fatts Russell on Thursday, URI is heading home to watch the rest of the tournament.
But the same could be said about Langevine, who apparently can’t make a free-throw in the regular season against anyone but in the NCAA Tournament, with everyone with a pulse watching, he calmly makes two pair in the overtime that URI needed to have. Team those shots with the rebounds, hustle, defense and a near-murderous dunk, he’s the epitome of why the Rams win games like Thursday’s.
These are just a few of examples. You could go through the rest of the lineup and find big plays made. Everyone in the rotation contributed. Because URI can’t win when that doesn’t happen.
There were some sour moments. There were times the Rams got stuck on offense and a lot of that had to do with Terrell and Matthews, who seemed to want to break URI out of a funk by themselves and take and make shots they aren’t qualified to hit. A couple trips would pass and the Rams would get a tough basket or, worse, one of those bad shots were rewarded, and the offense would get back on track.
That’s what URI needs to avoid Saturday against Duke. The Blue Devils are better than the Rams.
It doesn’t mean URI can’t win.
The team has spent most of the season playing as one. The win-loss record wasn’t by accident. If URI avoids the me-first moments and starts creating a little more pressure with smart defense – not the “let’s go for a steal when we don’t really have the play” type stuff – it can force Duke into a game it doesn’t want to play.
And if that happens, no one’s going to remember how one player played.
Because in Kingston, they’ll all end up as legends.