KINGSTON – Winning ugly is still winning. The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team didn’t play their best brand of basketball on Saturday afternoon against La Salle, but it was quality enough to earn them their fourth straight Atlantic 10 victory, 66-63.
“Another hard-fought A-10 conference game, against a hard-fighting team,” URI head coach David Cox said. “I think [La Salle head coach] Ashley [Howard] does a great job with those guys. They take on his personality. They never gave in.”
“That just goes to show how much we can play together and feed off one another,” Jeff Dowtin said of not playing their collective best and still winning. “A lot of us didn’t play very well today but we stayed at it.”
The Rams looked to be on pace for a double-digit victory. Up 14 points three-quarters of the way through the game, the Rams had to hold on for dear life down the stretch to establish their longest winning streak of the year.
The Explorers rallied all the way back to take a one-point lead. While URI’s offense abandoned them at times on Saturday, their defense remained reliable. Dowtin and Tyrese Martin both had big steals in the final two minutes to help hold off La Salle (10-7, 1-4).
“These guys showed tremendous poise and resiliency today,” Cox said, referring to Dowtin, Martin and Fatts Russell. “They calmed us down, made the right plays down the stretch.”
Russell and Dowtin were the only Rams to register double-figure scoring in the balanced win. Russell didn’t eclipse the 10-point mark until the very end of regulation. He led the Rams with 13 points; Dowtin had 10.
Seven Rams scored at least seven points. Mekhi Long and Antwan Walker both netted nine off the bench. Freshman Long has one of his most effective games in college: he attempted only four shots and didn’t turn the ball over once.
“Those three guys off the bench have been really solid for us, the past five, six games,” Cox said, also referring to Jacob Toppin. “All three of them bring tremendous energy and versatility.”
Cyril Langevine had shot 9-for-31 from the field in URI’s three previous games. He rebounded from that slump on Saturday by scoring eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.
“That’s on me,” Cox said. “That kid plays so hard, does so much for us. He needs to be rewarded. Not only do these guys have to do a better job finding him on the floor, I have to do a better job of calling him some plays and getting him some touches.”
The Explorers went on a 17-2 run in the second half to take a one-point lead. Isiah Deas and Scott Spencer kept the visitors alive with a flurry of made 3-pointers. Those two hit seven of their team’s eight deep makes.
“You play a little more free,” when you’re down like La Salle was, said Cox. “They played very free. They were attacking, stepping into shots with great confidence. Sometimes that’s what happens when you’re down.
“We did a lot of switching. They played so small. I know a lot of people watch these games and say ‘it’s La Salle, it’s St. Joes’. They’re Division I players, they’re really good. Well coached. Just like in boxing matches – styles make fights – styles make games in basketball too. We have to adapt on the fly to a lot of these styles. Not making any excuses, but we had a two-day prep. Our guys did a tremendous job of locking in. T.J. [Buchanan] did a great job preparing them with the scout.”
When the Rams needed stops on defense, they got them. It was a one possession game for most of the final few minutes. Martin was nearly beat on a back-door cut, but recovered to steal the ball away. When the La Salle player tried to steal it back, Martin simply shook his head, no, and dribbled up the court.
“We pride ourselves on the defensive end,” Russell said. “We look at ourselves as a defensive team, honestly. Every day we come to practice and our main focus is on defense.”