KINGSTON – How it looked didn’t matter to Dan Hurley. He didn’t care about the 25.8 percent shooting in the first half, the halftime score that only would be a shootout if it was played next door at Meade Stadium, or having his No. 2 scorer put up a goose egg for the first time in two years.
The aesthetics of the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team’s play this season isn’t a priority.
Friday's score in the Rams’ 59-47 win over Brown is a mirage, because it didn’t indicate how poorly the in-state rivals played most of the night. Both coaches liked some of what they did defensively, but it was hard to ignore the fact that there are intramural teams on the two schools’ campuses that could shoot better than the Rams and Bears did Friday.
“I don’t want to tell you what we were saying on the bench about what we were watching,” Hurley said. “This is the way we have to win this year; this is who we are. It’s our recipe.”
“I don’t think either team shot the way they’re capable,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “But we’re getting better defensively; we’ve seen that in the last three games."
The difference-maker was Xavier Munford, who Hurley thought wasn’t going to play Friday after the junior transfer suffered a bruised tailbone in practice four days earlier after getting bridged by teammate T.J. Buchanan going up for a dunk.
Munford didn’t look like someone who could barely tie their own shoes Friday and an injury like his would have had the aforementioned intramural teams sitting on couches in the dorms, watching TV.
The Rams led 23-19 with 14:23 left to play – that’s the game, not the first half - when their offensive approach switched from taking and missing jumpers to attacking the basket. Munford led the charge, scoring eight of his 14-second half points in a 17-4 run that put URI up 40-23 with 6:59 to go.
“Our shots weren’t falling early,” said Munford, who led all scorers with 18 points, “so we just started attacking the basket, being more aggressive, trying to get fouls and trying to finish strong at the basket.”
“X is a player,” Hurley said. “This is a year where our assist totals are not going to be super high, our field goal percentage offense is not going to break records but when you’ve got a guy like this who’s got his talent, he can step up and save you in a critical part of the game.”
The 17-point lead seemed safe as it looked like Brown had a better chance of winning a dunk contest against the Rams than making shots from the outside. The Bears hit 13 of 27 from deep in their 69-68 upset of Providence College on Dec. 28, but missed their first 11 attempts against URI.
“They did a decent job of pressuring us and making us uncomfortable,” Martin said. “A lot of our shots weren’t so much in rhythm even though they might have been open looks.”
Brown briefly made it interesting, outscoring URI 17-10 over the next 4:50 thanks to a 3-for-5 effort from the 3-point line and trailed 50-40. The Rams maintained the lead with some mediocre free throw shooting but never led the lead dip into single digits.
“We just gutted out a win against a team that’s been playing well,” Hurley said.
Munford’s 18 led URI; Mike Powell scored 16 and Andre Malone, who carried the offense with 10 points in the first half, finished with 12. The shock of the night was Nikola Malesevic, who missed all nine of his shots and didn’t score for the first time since his March 16, 2011 in a 76-59 win over Miami of Ohio.
Friday’s game was the last non-conference game of the season for URI and at 5-8, the Rams look a lot better going into Atlantic 10 play than many expected.
How the Rams got there wasn’t a surprise to Hurley. He didn’t expect the season to be sparkles and sunshine, but talked about 5-8 with the excitement of a coach whose team was nationally ranked.
“I’ve never appreciated winning more in my life than this year,” Hurley said. “I appreciated it it. Division I basketball, it’s hard to win any game with the level of people we’ve played and we’re about to play, that might change for me moving forward beyond this year, but I’m proud of the guys for having five wins right now.”
“It’s strange,” said Munford of his coach’s attitude. “But I know coach – he’s going to push us and get us ready for conference play. That’s all we’re worried about right now.”
URI opens its A-10 schedule at Richmond Wednesday at 7 p.m. The Spiders are 10-5 and ended a three-game slide with a 91-68 win over Air Force on Jan. 2. Richmond beat the Rams at the Ryan Center 70-53 last season and this year’s matchup won’t get much easier.
“When you look at our conference schedule,” Hurley said, “every game for us is going to be an incredible challenge for us to give ourselves a chance to win.”