By ERIC RUEB
KINGSTON - As far as rules of when it’s appropriate to rush the court, fans of the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team didn’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 UMass’ Freddie Riley’s heave missed its mark, the Rams were 81-78 winners, a word not associate with the program this season.
“Just another day in the office, huh?” URI coach Jim Baron said.
“The guys believed we were going to win the game,” said Outerbridge, who scored a career-best 29 points and tied his career high with 19 rebounds. “Even when it went to overtime.”
They might have been the only ones.
The Rams (5-18, 2-6 Atlantic 10) never trailed in overtime and after UMass’ 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 – on lifts, maybe – 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 – “Of course; it’s my guys,” 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.
“There it is, we’ll see,” said Kellogg as the highlight aired, then, after watching it saying “whatever” before walking out.
“He just tried to get into me. I don’t think there was contact,” said Malesevic, who finished with 19 points. “There might have been an offensive foul. That’s all I can say.”
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 URI’s 86-81 win. Things didn’t change much Wednesday, as the Rams played with a similar hint of confidence.
“We definitely had some momentum running in from the Dayton game,” Outerbridge said. “We knew if we could win there against that good team, we could do the same in our own house.”
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 Saturday’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 Williams’ drive-and-dish ability.
“They’ve got a terrific point guard who knows how to distribute the ball to their guys,” Jim Baron said. “We were concerned and targeting help-side defense constantly.”
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.
UMass’ 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 hadn’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.
“His shot was on,” Jim Baron said. “He made plays.”
“If I’m open I’ll shoot it,” Outerbridge said. “Sometimes when I’m open, it’s better to make the better pass but I’ve been knocking down some shots the last couple of practices so I think it just carried over to the game.”
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.
“It was designed if it was open,” Kellogg said. “There are a couple of different options off of that one and that was one of them.”
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, there’d be good reason to call the fans out for a totally unnecessary display of emotion.
But after what they’ve been through and what this team has been through, Wednesday’s win was a chance to release all the pressure that’s been sitting on everyone’s shoulders, something the Rams hope will carry over to Saturday when they host Temple at 2 p.m.
“I don’t think we’re going to play with less stress. I think we’re going to try to keep doing what we did [Wednesday],” Outerbridge said. “We’re in last place and as much as it [stinks] to be in last place, we don’t have a lot to lose. We came in [Wednesday] and played like it was our last game ever.”
“I want it for them. They’re more important than me and everything else around it,” Jim Baron said. “We’re in this boat together and we have to keep being optimistic and positive.”