KINGSTON – The more things change, the more they stay the same. The University of Rhode Island basketball team was supposed to feature a new-look bench this season, but a pair of ineligible newcomers has left the Rams looking a lot like last year’s squad.

With Antwan Walker and Jeremy Sheppard unable to join their new teammates on the hardwood, it was the returning starting five who led the Rams past LIU in their season opener on Tuesday. Four of the five starters notched double-figure scoring as the Rams held off the Sharks, 76-65.

“We have a number of guys who can put the ball in the basket,” URI head coach David Cox said. “We want to be selfless when we play the game. It starts with [Fatts Russell] on the ball. He’s playing with tremendous pace.”

Junior Russell tied his career-best with seven assists. He didn’t turn the ball over once, scoring a team-high 18 points on 12 shots. He showed off his speed and skills early in the game, stealing and scoring to make it 10-4.

“It’s easy when our guys are making shots,” Russell said of the career-tying effort. “I’m just throwing the ball left and right, Jeff [Dowtin’s] hitting ‘em, Tyrese [Martin] is hitting ‘em, Cyril [Langevine’s] finishing. It makes my job easy.”

The players Russell rattled off were the other three in double-figures. Langevine recorded his 24th career double-double. Following last year’s campaign that saw him fall a single rebound short of averaging a double-double, Langevine has a good head start on accomplishing that this year. He had 16 points and 15 rebounds in the win.

“He’s a grown man,” Cox said.

“At halftime I told him he could get 30 [points] and 20 [rebounds] if he just finished a couple of layups. His energy and his effort, I don’t know if that there’s another player in the country that has his type of motor.”

Martin and Dowtin both contributed 13 points. As dominant as the starting five looked at times, the Rams new depth had its fair share of moments. Three players made their Rhody debut in the win, led by freshman Jacob Toppin (11 points, no turnovers and a block).

“He’s a confident young man,” Cox said. “He’s long, athletic, skilled. We had him guard multiple positions tonight. His defensive effort was really, really good. The 11 points we’ll take, but he was locked into the game plan on defense. If he can continue on this trend moving forward, he definitely brings tremendous value to this team.”

“It was definitely different for me,” Toppin said of playing in his first-ever collegiate contest. “The pace was very different. Everyone had my back, told me to just play my game. That made it much easier to play.

“I  just want to give everything I have. If it’s two minutes or 20. I’m just going to give everything I have to stay on the court and be as much as a help as I can.”

Toppin did all his damage in 16 minutes on the court. He looked active around the rim, with four of his seven boards coming on offense. He was 5-of-6 on free throw attempts.

Also seeing real game action for the first time as Rams were Mekhi Long and Gregory Hammond. Long had four rebounds and went 0-of-4 from the field, while Hammond had an assist and a rebound.

With the exclusion of Walker for the first semester, and Sheppard for the entire season, Cox will need the remaining three newcomers to provide his experienced starting lineup with some back-up.

“I thought our older guys would be ready, wasn’t sure how the younger guys would respond,” Cox said. “I was happy I was able to get them in the game and get their feet wet. [Toppin] flourished with his minutes.

“After the waiver decision, we had a number of closed-door meetings with these guys. Just trying to establish their roles. They came here wanting to play, now they’re going to get the opportunity.”

The Rams had to hold off the Sharks – who are predicted to win the Northeast Conference – down the stretch. LIU whittled the lead down to as low as eight in the final 10 minutes, but jumpers by Russell and Dowtin staved off any comeback.

Rhody has no choice but to hit the ground running this season. Next up? Top 10 Maryland on the road.

“It’s good to get the first win,” Cox said. “We have to get the kinks out. A lot of work to do in the next few days in preparation for Maryland.”

“It’s good,” Langevine said of the matchup. “Good exposure for us and the coaches. We’re excited. Put us up against anybody, we’re ready for the competition. We’re just gonna go out and play basketball. [Cox] is going to get us ready for that.”

URI takes on the Terps in College Park on Saturday, at 9:00 p.m. Live TV coverage will be provided by FS1.

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