KINGSTON – You can’t spell ‘late-season collapse’ without URI.
Technically you can, but there’s no denying that when it comes to winning when it matters most, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball has not performed when it counted.
The last three seasons URI has had a chance to puts itself in the NCAA Tournament, only to flame out late in A-10 play, followed by struggles in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
This year is a little different.
With no chance of qualifying as an at-large NCAA team, the Rams needed to win to help solidify itself as a top four team in the A-10, which would give it a bye to the quarterfinals.
And in almost typical fashion, URI didn’t show up – on Senior Night no less – turning the ball over against George Washington’s trapping defense and in turn, failing to create turnovers on the defensive end to kick-start the big runs that have helped them in wins this season in Wednesday’s 66-55 loss to George Washington.
“Every loss is difficult,” said Marquis Jones, who was plagued by foul trouble and but scored 12 points in the loss. “This may be a little more difficult because it’s potentially my last home game.”
“We talked about the equation (to success) and you have to be consistent,” URI coach Jim Baron said, “and we fell short.”
Falling short in March has become a little too familiar in Kingston the last few seasons.
While Wednesday’s game didn’t have the implications late-season games have the last three Marches – where the Rams found a way to turn themselves into a “Bubble Team,” only to lose a game that likely would have pushed them into the NCAA Tournament – a win over George Washington would have put them in good position to earn a bye into the A-10 tournament, especially paired with a win Saturday when URI plays at St. Bonaventure.
If one is an accident, two is coincidence and three is a trend, the only question left is why has the late-season trend developed for the Rams.
“Personally, I play the same way for every game that I’ve been in,” Jones said. “I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me it’s no different.”
Jones looked distraught as he spoke to the media after the game, clearly upset by what had just happened.
George Washington was excellent on the defensive end all night, using its press to slow the Rams’ high-paced offense and then trapping when URI found its way into the halfcourt.
The turnovers added up in a hurry. The Rams had 11 in the first half, 19 in the game and it wasn’t because the Colonials were stripping the ball away left and right.
What GW did so well was put enough pressure on the ball to create bad decisions, not necessarily bad passes. Those bad decisions came on bad reversals of the basketball, not making the right reads against the defense and when you make 19 of them, there aren’t many times when you come out on top.
“I was just disappointed having 11 turnovers at halftime and ending up with 19 turnovers,” Baron said. “Teams play you different ways. We played Richmond on the road and they played a switching man-to-man. We played Duquesne and they looked to trap, they looked to press and they looked to switch. We came into this game and we knew they were going to trap us, whether it was a half-court trap or full-court trap.
Watching their games we knew we needed to handle the basketball and we fell short.”
Defensively the Rams were also short, at least in terms of doing what they needed to in order to be successful.
In eight A-10 games at the Ryan Center this year, URI won four; in three of those wins, its opponents scored 65 points or fewer; the other win was a 71-70 overtime win over Charlotte.
But in their four home conference losses, the Rams have given up at least 66 points each time.
The problem isn’t giving up the points – it’s not being able to score, which doesn’t allow URI to press and control the tempo of the game.
George Washington did a tremendous job keeping its hands on the ball and never allowed Rhode Island to transform into the Runnin’ Rams.
“They’re much better running when they steal the ball from you,” GW coach Karl Hobbs said. “They didn’t create any turnovers, so they didn’t get a chance to get out.”
A lot of that had to do with Jones.
Hit with his fourth foul with 6:32 left and URI down 50-45, Baron had to put Jamal Wilson on George Washington star Tony Taylor, as opposed to letting Jones take care of him.
Wilson did what he could, but it was clear he was overmatched. Taylor controlled the remainder of the game where he scored six of his game-high 23 points.
“He really didn’t have great rhythm,” Baron said of Wilson’s defensive effort. “We’ve been moving him into the starting role and moving him forward but you have to do more, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end.”
URI led 19-14 with 9:05 left in the first half after a layup by Delroy James, but George Washington came back with a 14-2 run to take a 28-21 lead with 2:22 remaining before going into halftime up 32-29.
The Rams started falling behind early in the second half and trailed 48-37 with 10:56 left in the game, but came back with a 10-2 run to make it 50-47 with 5:35 left to play before Taylor stopped the bleeding with a pair of free throws.
“They truly are a team of runs when you look at all of their games,” Hobbs said. “…That was one of our main focuses tonight.”
It was another big loss in another big game for URI and the Rams will need a win Saturday against St. Bonaventure and some help if they want to earn a bye into the A-10 tourney.
But the bye wasn’t Baron’s biggest concern after the game.
“I’m more concerned about being consistent than worrying about getting a bye,” Baron said. “I’d love to do that, but right now I have to get back to rebounding the basketball. Right now I have to get back to handling the basketball. You can’t have (29) turnovers and think you’re going to win a game. We have to work on that. We have to get better at doing that.”
There will be significantly less pressure as the Rams finish off the season. The hopes of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid are long gone and the hopes of an NIT bid may be out the window as well.
For whatever reason, when the Rams are counted out, they’ve played better and it’s the lone hope for URI as it prepares for what is left of the season.
“It’s no secret. To be honest with you, I think it’s a good thing. The last three years we’ve been on the Bubble Watch and that plays into a lot of our heads, watching Bracketology and all of that. We just have to go out and play. There’s no maybes and we know we have to do work in the A-10s.”