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By ERIC RUEB
KINGSTON - As far as rules of when itâ€™s appropriate to rush the court, fans of the University of Rhode Island menâ€™s basketball team didnâ€™t follow any of them Wednesday night.
But the way the season has gone for the Rams, winning two games in a row for the first time this season was a reason to celebrate.
It was the type of game URI has lost all year, taking a lead before giving it up, but this time the Rams clawed their way back thanks to the play of Orion Outerbridge, tied the game with 30 seconds left and got a stop to send the game to overtime where, after committing a costly turnover, Nikola Malesevic came up with a block and made two free throws and when UMassâ€™ Freddie Rileyâ€™s heave missed its mark, the Rams were 81-78 winners, a word not associate with the program this season.
â€śJust another day in the office, huh?â€ť URI coach Jim Baron said.
â€śThe guys believed we were going to win the game,â€ť said Outerbridge, who scored a career-best 29 points and tied his career high with 19 rebounds. â€śEven when it went to overtime.â€ť
They might have been the only ones.
The Rams (5-18, 2-6 Atlantic 10) never trailed in overtime and after UMassâ€™ Chaz Williams made a pair of free throws with 10.4 seconds left, URI led 79-78. Disaster struck when Malesevic tried to throw a lob pass to a streaking Mike Powell, but the freshman was beaten to the ball by Raphiel Putney. Putney quickly passed to Williams who took it down the lane and as the 5-foot-9 â€“ on lifts, maybe â€“ guard tried to go up, the 6-7 Malesevic either blocked or stole the ball before Williams could get a shot off.
Malesevic was immediately fouled and he made both free throws with 4.1 seconds left and a last-second 3 by Riley just inside midcourt missed, ending the game.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg thought Williams was fouled on the play â€“ â€śOf course; itâ€™s my guys,â€ť he said, - but after speaking with the media, he stuck around to watch the highlights of the game on a television in the media room.
â€śThere it is, weâ€™ll see,â€ť said Kellogg as the highlight aired, then, after watching it saying â€śwhateverâ€ť before walking out.
â€śHe just tried to get into me. I donâ€™t think there was contact,â€ť said Malesevic, who finished with 19 points. â€śThere might have been an offensive foul. Thatâ€™s all I can say.â€ť
This was a confidence win for Rhode Island, something it lacked before last week after opening the season 3-18 and 0-6 in league play.
Saturday against Dayton, the Rams were a decidedly different team and it showed on the court and on the scoreboard after URIâ€™s 86-81 win. Things didnâ€™t change much Wednesday, as the Rams played with a similar hint of confidence.
â€śWe definitely had some momentum running in from the Dayton game,â€ť Outerbridge said. â€śWe knew if we could win there against that good team, we could do the same in our own house.â€ť
Up 36-32 at halftime after a 7-1 run punctuated by a Dominique McKoy steal that led to a TJ Buchanan layup that left his fingertips just before the horn sound, URI continued to play well in the second half.
Billy Baron, one of the heroes in Saturdayâ€™s win after his 25-point effort, buried a 3-pointer that capped an 8-2, giving URI a 44-37 lead with 16:22 left and, as House of Pain echoed in the gym, had the crowd on their feet jumping with the music.
That celebration was short lived as UMass answered with a 14-2 run to take a 51-46 lead, doing most of their damage on the interior. It was a running theme for the night, as the Minutemen scored 49 points in the paint Wednesday night, a result of URI keeping the focus on Williamsâ€™ drive-and-dish ability.
â€śTheyâ€™ve got a terrific point guard who knows how to distribute the ball to their guys,â€ť Jim Baron said. â€śWe were concerned and targeting help-side defense constantly.â€ť
Instead of falling apart as they did in other losses, the Rams clawed back. Buchanan made a 3-pointer with 3:11 left to give URI a 63-62 lead, one it never extended past three.
UMassâ€™ Terrell Vinson made a pair to tie the game at 67 with 1:09 left and UMass took the lead when Williams stole the ball from Outerbridge and took it in for two.
Outerbridge, a 6-9 forward from Boston who hadnâ€™t beaten the Minutemen since his freshman year, got some revenge, hitting a jumper from the top of the key to tie the game at 69 with 29 seconds to go. The senior finished the night 11 of 17 from the floor.
â€śHis shot was on,â€ť Jim Baron said. â€śHe made plays.â€ť
â€śIf Iâ€™m open Iâ€™ll shoot it,â€ť Outerbridge said. â€śSometimes when Iâ€™m open, itâ€™s better to make the better pass but Iâ€™ve been knocking down some shots the last couple of practices so I think it just carried over to the game.â€ť
UMass ran 20 seconds off the clock before calling a timeout with 9.1 left. After the timeout, Williams hesitated off the inbounds play and a screen-and-roll ended in a rushed 3-pointer by Jesse Morgan.
â€śIt was designed if it was open,â€ť Kellogg said. â€śThere are a couple of different options off of that one and that was one of them.â€ť
After winning in overtime, the URI student section rushed the court in probably the most awkward celebration seen on the Kingston campus. If this were a season typical of the previous four, thereâ€™d be good reason to call the fans out for a totally unnecessary display of emotion.
But after what theyâ€™ve been through and what this team has been through, Wednesdayâ€™s win was a chance to release all the pressure thatâ€™s been sitting on everyoneâ€™s shoulders, something the Rams hope will carry over to Saturday when they host Temple at 2 p.m.
â€śI donâ€™t think weâ€™re going to play with less stress. I think weâ€™re going to try to keep doing what we did [Wednesday],â€ť Outerbridge said. â€śWeâ€™re in last place and as much as it [stinks] to be in last place, we donâ€™t have a lot to lose. We came in [Wednesday] and played like it was our last game ever.â€ť
â€śI want it for them. Theyâ€™re more important than me and everything else around it,â€ť Jim Baron said. â€śWeâ€™re in this boat together and we have to keep being optimistic and positive.â€ť