KINGSTON - As far as first steps go, this was a sure-footed one for the URI men’s basketball team. An 11-0 run kicked off David Cox’s first official game as head coach of the program, and the Rams quickly left Bryant standing in their wake, winning by a run-away final of 97-63.
“We were ready tonight,” Cox said. “This was much different than the Pace exhibition. Our guys were locked in.”
The opening 11-0 run was vintage Rhody. Fatts Russell created offense on the fastbreak, and the Rams looked deadly from 3-point land, splashing home a pair of early triples. Foul trouble briefly interrupted Russell’s first half, but didn’t stop the sophomore from leading all scorers with 21 points.
“It’s a great feeling for all of us,” starting like that, Russell said. “Freshmen especially, they came in with momentum. It was easy for them to step in.”
His backcourt partner Jeff Dowtin was equally controlling of the game. Increasing Dowtin’s scoring output was a major focal point of the offseason for Cox and his staff, but in his 2018 debut he looked a lot like his old, steady self.
“Those two guys were the best guys on the court,” first-year Bryant head coach Jared Grasso said of the dangerous duo of Russell and Dowtin.
Dowtin had a near-triple double line of 17 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
Christion Thompson was really the only question mark for the Rams backcourt entering the season. If he can consistently put up numbers anywhere like his line on Tuesday - 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks - he’ll be more than able to play major minutes alongside the likes of Russell and Dowtin.
“Those three guys were tremendous tonight,” Cox said. “They’ll need to do this throughout the year. They are more than capable.
“I think a lot of people have forgotten about Christion Thompson and what he brings to the table. The shot-making ability, and his ability to defend multiple positions.”
“Felt like a long-time coming,” Thompson said of his official return to the hardcourt. “I was able to get off to a fast-start.”
The talented freshmen group only accounted for 22 of Rhody’s points on the evening. There was still plenty of positives for Coach Cox to take away from their collective debut.
“A solid B, maybe even a B-plus,” he said of the freshmen. “They played hard, they played Rhode Island basketball. They took a step forward today.”
The young big guys were pressed into immediate service, with Cyril Langevine playing perhaps his worst half in his three years as a Ram. Held scoreless in the first half, he chucked up four errant shots and turned the ball over three times. Unquestioned leader of the frontcourt he may be, in Tuesday’s opener Langevine was picked up by his younger teammates.
Jermaine Harris drew the start alongside Langevine, and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds. On offense, he drew four fouls and scored all four of his points from the line. Tyrese Martin was the high-scorer of the group, netting himself seven points. Omar Silverio hit a pair of 3-pointers and Dana Tate had six points and three rebounds.
“Jermaine’s physicality was outstanding,” Cox said. “Tyrese got it going early in transition. I thought his defense was solid. Dana and Omar came in and contributed as well.”
Ryan Preston also showed the ability to give the Rams more options at the forward positions. Playing 13 minutes, the seldom-used JuCo transfer filled a role vacated by Andre Berry’s graduation. He was perfect from the field (4-4), and helped stretch out the Bulldog’s zone defense with a corner jumper. His nine points were the most of any URI bench player.
“He’s got size, athleticism and he plays hard,” Cox said. “He wants to play. He just hasn’t played a lot since he’s been here. It’s been a bit of a process for him. There were some early frustrations, but he has come a long way. If he continues to play like that, that gives us an additional weapon.”
The Bulldogs played nip-and-tuck with the Rams for stretches in the first half, but despite their new-look aggression, couldn’t hang with the in-state competition.
New head coach Grasso already has his Bulldogs playing in the image of his former team, Iona. They attempted 34 3-pointers in the loss, but only connected on six of them. Overall shooting percentages of 33 from the floor, 17 on 3-pointers and 42 from the line had Grasso turning up his nose following his first collegiate head coaching experience.
“We’re not gonna beat anyone shooting like that, the way we play,” he said.
“New coach, new program, he’s trying to install his stuff there,” Cox said. “Tremendous respect to him for taking the game and for the way those guys competed.”
Despite the poor shooting numbers, Bryant’s Byron Hawkins still managed a 16-point night to lead his team. Bryant returns to action on Sunday against Seattle.
The Rams gained some confidence in Game 1, to the point where Russell came to the realization that it’s his team now. E.C. Matthews is not walking through that door.
“It’s our team now,” Russell said. “We look over our shoulder, we don’t see no more E.C. or [Jared Terrell]. It’s a great feeling to know we’re stepping into a big role.”
Rhody plays at College of Charleston next Tuesday.