By ERIC RUEB
KINGSTON – The biggest cheer of Tuesday night's home opener wasn’t for Delroy James, Akeem Richmond, Marquis Jones, Will Martell or any of the members of the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team.
No, the biggest cheer of the night was for Matt Cotton, a senior at URI who took part in a event during timeout where he made a layup, free throw (on the third try) and 3-pointer before racing out to mid-court and flicking up a half-court prayer that found nothing but twine, sending Cotton back to his seat with $100 in his pocket and putting every fan in the Ryan Center on their feet.
It wasn’t that the Rams were bad Tuesday night; in fact, URI played pretty decent basketball against Brown Tuesday, its first game since losing to No. 5 Pittsburgh on Nov. 8, but it wasn’t excellent.
URI’s athleticism and defense made up for its rebounding problems and teamed with better all-around basketball players, the Rams hung on to a single-digit lead before blowing the game open in the second half in their 92-67 win.
“I actually felt bad because we were the last team in Rhode Island without a win,” said James, whose team added a win after the likes of Providence, Brown and even lowly Bryant. “…Everybody’s got wins now, so I feel better about it.”
“It was basically a swarm of defense tonight,” Brown coach Jesse Agel said. “We’re a real young team and I knew tonight coming in it was not anything our point guard had faced in his life, because I don’t think many high school team’s are built like URI’s club out there.”
It was a game of two good runs with a lot of mediocre basketball from two young teams, the most important of the runs coming just about seven minutes into the second half as the Rams high-energy, pressurized defensive attack was too much for Brown to handle.
With Brown down nine points after trailing by 13 at half, URI turned the 57-48 game on its head, going on a 16-0 run, seven of those points off turnovers.
“They were getting closer and closer and whoever was out there had to step up their game and try to put them away early,” James said “... We just had to be more focused and locked in at that time.”
James was a big factor in Tuesday night’s win. The 6-foot-8 senior was clearly the best player on the court but didn’t show it in the first half, going 3 of 7 from the floor and grabbing only one rebound.
In the second half, James became the player he was at the end of last season, hitting 6 of 8 from the field – he scored 13 of his game-high 23 points in the second half.
Brown had no answer.
“Not my problem,” joked Agel when asked how to cover James. “Good luck.”
“I can only take over as much as my teammates let me. I just can’t go out there and try to do it all,” James said. “I’m not going to ever step out of bounds from the team concept so if that’s what they want me to do at points, I’m going to do that.”
All told, Rhode Island forced 22 turnovers and scored 35 points off those Brown mistakes. Sophomore Daniel West led the Rams with four steals and, coming off the bench in his Ryan Center debut, provided the kind of spark URI will need this season even on the offensive end.
West had 14 points and a team-best six assists in the win.
“Danny is a guy, he has an uncanny ability to make guys better,” URI coach Jim Baron said. “He’s a pass-first guy and he’s a different type of player. He’s very crafty on the defensive end.”
“I feel like I can be the one to come off the bench and bring the energy, try to pick the team up when we’re down,” West said. “Just play the game, have fun and everybody else has fun.”
The Rams had fun at the start of Tuesday night’s game. After trading a few shots with Brown, URI led 12-10 4 minutes, 17 seconds into the game before its first big run of the night, outscoring Brown 17-3 over the next 4:12.
While the Rams should have kept momentum going, the lead fluctuated and got as low as 13, but never higher than 18 before Brown closed the first half with the final four points to make it 49-36 headed to the locker room.
The momentum carried over to the second half, as Brown continued to take advantage of URI on the glass – the bigger, more athletic Rams had 30 rebounds to Brown’s 36 – and opened scoring six of the first eight points to get it to single digits.
“You know the old adage ‘the fight doesn’t begin until you get punched in the mouth,’ and we really took a good haymaker right out of the gate,” Agel said. “The fact that we came back and hung in there and believed, that’s definitely a positive.”
The Rams finally finished things off and while it wasn’t pretty – or extremely exciting, for that matter – it’s a win any way you count it.
“This was a good win for us,” Baron said, “a solid win for us against a Brown team I think is going to win a lot of games.”