By ERIC RUEB
KINGSTON – Ben Eaves pleaded for the basketball.
Camped out in the post with just under four minutes left against Fordham, he screamed “Nik” at teammate Nikola Malesevic, who gave it up, slid off to the right corner, where Eaves threw a perfect one-handed pass out of the double-team. Malesevic released, the crowd stood up and when the ball snapped through the net, exploded in
Amazing what happens when you make a couple of shots.
There’s been plenty of criticism about why the Rams have struggled – inept coaching, sloppy defense, lack of size, selfish play – but Wednesday’s 72-52 win over Fordham, sparked by a second half where URI hit 15 of 27 from the floor, showed how good the team is when it shoots reasonably well.
“You make shots, you win games,” said URI’s Delroy James, who scored 17 points Wednesday. “Defense wins games also, but you can’t win games without making shots.”
“It was like night and day with scoring the ball,” URI coach Jim Baron said. “…But it’s something important that we have to do.”
For most teams, defense sets up the offense but the Rams work a little different. A stop here or there can get some easy baskets, but Baron’s team – filled with athletes who can play multiple positions – are built to press.
The only way you can do that is by making baskets, which is why there wasn’t a lot of full-court pressure in the first half. URI (14-8, 4-3 Atlantic 10) trailed 28-25 at the break, where the players talked what needed to be done if they wanted to avoid an embarrassing loss to Fordham, who came into the game with 33 straight A-10 losses.
After shooting 32.3 percent in the first half and making only 1 of 13 3-pointers – a shot by Eaves with 2:51 left after 11 straight misses – URI continued to fire, but in the second half it connected.
The Rams opened with an 11-0 run on 5 of 8 shooting to take a 36-28 lead. Fordham eventually chopped the deficit in half and trailed 38-34 with 13:11 left in the game, but Akeem Richmond followed with his first made 3-pointer that sparked a 13-2 run an put the Rams up 51-36 with 9:49 left.
Fordham got it to single digits at 54-45, but Eaves followed with a jumper before working aforementioned give-and-go with Malesevic that gave the Rams some breathing room.
“It was like the European Connection,” said Malesevic, who is from Serbia while Eaves hails from England. “I just looked for the open space, he saw me, passed the ball and I knocked the shot down.”
All told, the shooting wasn’t spectacular Wednesday night – but it was respectable.
As the Rams made shots in the second half it allowed them to press. Fordham finished with 15 turnovers that turned into 16 points.
But there haven’t been many qualms made about the defense, which has only been a “problem” on nights when the Rams have shot poorly.
Baron has received a brunt of the criticism because the team’s success is so reliant on the offense’s ability to score. Baron does the Xs and Os, but when it comes to players making shots, there’s little he can do but stand there and watch.
“That’s what’s going to make you a good team. You have to shoot the ball,” Baron said. “No matter where you’re playing, you have to shoot the ball and make shots. We did it at Richmond and won the game; we did it at St. Joe’s; we did it in St. Louis. We have to make some shots regardless of who we’re playing against and as you play against better teams, guess what? You have to make shots.”
The Rams made shots Wednesday. Malesevic led the team with 20 points and hit 8 of 11 from the floor; James made 6 of 15; Akeem Richmond scored 10 points and made a pair of 3-pointers; Marquis Jones hit 4 of 8 from the floor in a 16-point night. Even Ben Eaves got in the action, hitting 3 of 7 and going 1-for-3 from the 3-point line as he added seven points.
URI’s not about to slow the game down and try to dominate the post – tough to do when its only true center, Will Martell, was on the bench in foul trouble – when the shots from the outside are falling.
“I got shooters. I recruited these guys to shoot the ball. I didn’t recruit them to make layups,” Baron said. “These are the guys I recruited to shoot – Akeem Richmond, Nikola, Delroy, Ben Eaves. You want them to shoot the ball because that’s what’s going to make you a special team as you get ready for the playoffs and as you get ready for down the stretch.”
The Rams will have to continue to shoot well Saturday when they travel to Philadelphia to take on Temple before coming back to the Ryan Center next Wednesday when they host Dayton.
Both games are important as URI is fighting for a bye in the A-10 tourney.
The Rams can make all the adjustments it wants to the game plan and fix things on the fly in games, but it needs to make shots to win and there’s only one way to do that.
“The shots aren’t going to fall all the time. There are going to be up and downs,” Malesevic said. “You have to believe in yourself, but the most important thing is to just work hard.”