KINGSTON – You do not play good basketball in every game during a season. It’s a statistical improbability. The best teams in the country, even those in the past that have gone undefeated, don’t do it. The game is a grind, almost as if by design, and while no one is happy with poor play, you deal with it because you have no other choice.
Playing poorly doesn’t always equate to losing. You can struggle and hit key shots at key moments, come up with big plays on defense to make your opponent look as bad as you are playing and find a way, even when things are going bad, to come up with a win when you’re not at your best.
It’s when you do that that living with poor play becomes a lot easier.
The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team’s 65-60 win over Georgia State Saturday had highlights, but it wasn’t the type of game Dan Hurley would fawn over. What he would point out were the Rams grinding it out and making plays when they needed to because the standings, much like a golf scorecard, don’t give you extra credit for making it look good.
“I loved the way the scoreboard looked,” Hurley said. “That was probably, in the first half, that might have been the only time this year that I think I was frustrated. I didn’t think we were real sharp. I didn’t think we were sharp at all, offensively, until those winning plays had to be made.
Hurley’s memory is short, and that’s good for a coach, because it was less than one month ago where he looked ready to dismiss his entire team from the roster and suit up students out of the stands after a terrible first half against George Mason.
In that loss, the Rams almost turned it around and fell 55-52 because they couldn’t make the winning plays Hurley alluded to. Saturday, they made them on what seemed like every opportunity they had.
“We had a few tough losses and we learned from them,” said URI’s Nikola Malesevic, who followed up his best game of the year last week against Southern Methodist with a better one Saturday, leading the team with 22 points and nine rebounds. “That’s why we earned the win.”
Malesevic made two of the biggest plays. URI was up 62-60 when he blocked a layup by GSU’s Devonta White; Xavier Munford rebounded, was fouled and made the first before missing the second. The ball was tipped by Ryan Brooks toward the sideline where Mike Powell saved it and passed to Malesevic, who was fouled immediately.
He missed both, but after GSU missed a game-tying 3-pointer, Malesevic came down with the rebound and was fouled. This time he converted, giving the Rams a 65-60 lead with 9.4 seconds left in the game.
“In the last couple of games he has played like an All-Conference player,” said Hurley of Malesevic. “… If we were going to have chances to win games this year, there’s a lot of pressure on him, but this is what he’s got to do.”
Malesevic’s 22 weren’t scored the way he had scored in the past. He made 7 of 12 from the floor, was 3-for-5 from the 3-point line and made 5 of 9 free throws. There weren’t the forced shots as there have been in the past.
Defensively he was even better and while he’s not the biggest or toughest power forward on the court in most games, he’s giving URI an attitude it needs to pull games like Saturday’s out.
“You hate to put it on one guy, but we identified Nik in the individual workouts as a guy, to this point in his career, where I don’t think he’s squeezed the lemon so to speak,” Hurley said. “He’s starting to do it now because he’s a talented guy. He has skill and he has IQ; when he adds this ruggedness to his game, we have a chance to be competitive and win every game we’re in.”
The Rams were also in a spot to win because of Munford, who was figurative invisible on the court in the first half and put up a goose egg on the score sheet. The final 20 minutes went a lot better.
Tied at 42, Munford scored 12 straight URI points, all with different degrees of difficulty. He shook a defender and went baseline for a layup, hit an open 3-pointer, hit a 3-pointer while being fouled and converted his second four-point play of the season before finishing the stretch with another three that put the Rams up 54-44 with 4:16 left in the game.
“I didn’t try and force it in the second half,” said Munford, who finished with 17 points. “I struggled a little bit in the first half … so in the second half I tried to catch my rhythm and come into the game slowly and just try to find my rhythm and make better shots.”
“He didn’t look sharp, but it’s been a trend the last couple of games where he’s started slow in the first half and made critical plays in the second half,” Hurley said. “We have to identify some things to get him back to playing complete halves.”
His best play on the night came on the defensive end, where, after turning the ball over, he faked like he was going to block Manny Atkins, then went back up and did just that.
“I had to get back and make it up to my team,” Munford said.
“I was also killing you on the bench when you turned that over too,” said Hurley during the press conference. “Then you blocked the shot and I was a fan again.”
At 4-7, the Rams have exceeded expectations so far in both wins, effort and ability. With two games left in the non-conference play – Dec. 27 at Saint Mary’s and Jan. 4 at the Ryan Center vs. Brown – before Atlantic 10 play, a win like Saturday’s helps, even if it wasn’t pretty.
“It would have been real easy to go into it at 2-11 or 1-12 non-conference schedule and go limp into conference play,” Hurley said, “but these guys have got spirit.
“They care about the program and what we’re building.”