KINGSTON - URI head coach David Cox knew he needed to shake things up before Wednesday’s home game versus Davidson. It’s unlikely he knew just how effective a simple swap in the starting lineup would be for his Rams, who were suffering through their first losing streak of the season.
Cox subbed freshman Jacob Toppin into the starting five, giving Fatts Russell a seat on the bench. It would have been hard to choose incorrectly between the two on Wednesday. They were the two instrumental pieces of a 69-58 win that moved URI to 1-1 in Atlantic 10 play.
“[Cox] just told me right before the game started,” Russell said of the change. “He drew names on the board and I wasn’t one of them. It didn’t affect me. I know he has our best interests at heart. He was just trying to get a spark out of me.”
“Just like [against] West Virginia, trying to get a spark,” Cox said, referencing a second-half benching of Jeff Dowtin. “That’s all. Wanted to spark the young fellow [Russell], he’s been tremendous for us all year. He’s an outstanding leader. He was the difference tonight. Not just the points, but it’s how he accepted his role coming off the bench. He led while he was on the bench.”
Russell didn’t seem to be adversely affected by the ‘benching’. He was all-smiles pre-game, and was vocal on the bench before checking in.
Even off the pine, Russell was the game’s high-scorer (26 points), and he brought his usual frenetic on-the-ball defense that has him up amongst the nation’s leaders in steals. After sitting out the first four minutes, Russell didn’t leave the court again.
“Fatts is a warrior,” Cox said. “He just wants to win. He wants to be out on the floor. It wasn’t like he was going to be [on the bench] for long. He understood that.”
“Whatever you ask me to do, I’ll do,” Russell said. “Whatever my role is going forward, that’s what it’ll be. I’m just trying to win. I just want to win championships.”
Russell had started every game but one for the Rams since the beginning of last season. Toppin had never started in a collegiate game, but was out on the court on Wednesday for a career-high 26 minutes, providing the Rams with plenty of energy, some scoring (nine points) and the elusive spark that Cox was looking for.
“Nothing really changed,” for me, said Toppin. “I’m always going to be that energy guy, if I start or don’t start. Starting was definitely exciting for me, but nothing changed. I still gave a spark for everyone and led with energy.”
“It’s a long season,” Cox said. “Lot of ups and downs. Sometimes I have to tinker with the lineup or tinker with these guys minds a little bit.”
The Rams used stifling defense against a Wildcat squad that looked just as listless as their 6-7 record coming in indicated. After two games of lackluster perimeter defense, the Rams held the opposition on Wednesday to 4-23 from deep.
“Defensively, we did exactly what we wanted to do, limiting their 3-point makes,” Cox said. “Offensively, we did a great job sharing the ball and not turning it over a whole lot.
“We were there on the catch [defensively], we contested a lot of their shots. We stuck to the gameplan, ran them off the 3-point line. They didn’t get a lot of backdoor cuts on us.”
The Wildcats have been down two starters - Luke Frampton and KiShawn Pritchett - for most of this year. That’s left Jon Axel Gudmunsson and Kellan Grady to carry the load for Bob McKillop’s crew.
They haven’t quite been up to the task. URI controlled the talented duo, limiting Gudmunsson to seven points on 13 shots, and Grady to 11 on 17 attempts. The Wildcats only turned the ball over 10 times, but those giveaways were converted into 15 URI points.
On the break and off turnovers is indeed where the Rams found the traction to stop their two-game slide. They outscored the Wildcats on the break, 18-8, and also off of turnovers, 15-9. Russell and Mekhi Long both had two steals apiece.
Russell struggled with poor shooting and foul trouble in each of URI’s recent losses. On Wednesday, he committed only two personal fouls. He was also the most efficient shooter on the court, going 10-of-16 from the floor and 3-of-5 from deep.
After splitting their first two home A-10 games of the year, the Rams will take on a pair of road tests this weekend. First up is VCU on Saturday, then a trip to St. Joseph’s next Wednesday. The Rams from Virginia are 2-0 in conference play, while the Hawks have dropped three straight to kick off A-10 play.