Thursday’s Atlantic 10 Tournament opener went much like the University of Rhode Island’s season.
There were promising moments. There were struggles. The Rams kept pushing through all of it.
When all was said and done, they were on the wrong side of the ledger.
Dayton shot 55 percent from 3-point range and pulled away in the final 11 minutes for an 84-72 victory in a second round game at the Siegel Center, making it a short stay for the Rams in the postseason.
“It’s been a long, tough year for the Rhode Island Rams,” head coach David Cox said. “Our players I think deserve a tremendous amount of credit, not just today but throughout the year, for all they’ve endured on the floor and off the floor, for coming out here and giving their all every single day. I was proud of the way the guys fought tonight. Dayton was the better team tonight. They executed better, shot the ball better, Anthony [Grant] coached better.”
The loss ends a disappointing season for the Rams, who flashed potential early but dropped seven of their last eight games, tumbling to their first losing season since 2013-14. They had made at least the A-10 quarterfinals every year since 2015-16.
“It’s hard to put my finger on one thing in a year like this,” Cox said. “In a year like this, where the entire country has dealt with the pandemic, all of the protocols, all of the sicknesses, all of the stops and starts, all of the civil unrest, as well as the transfer waivers, the new pieces - there’s been a lot.
“It just never clicked, but our guys continued to fight each and every day,” Cox added. “The onus ultimately rests on my shoulders, not those guys. If there’s any finger-pointing, any criticism about the way this season unfolded for the Rhode Island Rams, I would hope - particularly the times we’re in - that I would get the brunt of that and not these young men who went out there in really tough circumstances and left it on the line each and every day.”
The Rams avoided a COVID-19 pause, playing more games than any team in the A-10, no small feat given the issues endured by teams around the country. The pandemic still hovered as the Rams played in empty gyms and went months without seeing family.
“It’s been a long, trying season for this team and for this program, but I’m so proud of the resiliency that these guys have shown time in and time out,” Cox said. “It’s not easy to lose, it’s not easy to end a season like this.”
URI led for chunks of the first half, but Dayton went on an 8-0 run in the final 1:04, Jalen Crutcher’s late 3-pointer making it a 40-31 lead for the Flyers at halftime.
The Rams made a move in the second half, getting within one on a 3-pointer by Allen Betrand with 11:15 left. The Flyers responded with a 15-3 run and stayed comfortably in control the rest of the way.
In its previous meeting with Dayton, URI rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to win in double-overtime. There was no repeat Thursday. That comeback victory remained URI’s only win since January.
URI’s limp to the finish was literal, too. Betrand left with a knee injury soon after the big 3-pointer. Makhel Mitchell was done for the day with five fouls. URI was already without Jeremy Sheppard, who injured his ankle in the regular season finale and was not dressed Thursday. Fatts Russell appeared to be banged up again.
URI shot 51 percent from the field - exactly the same as Dayton’s mark - and committed only 11 turnovers. For much of the season, those were key parts of a good recipe for the Rams, but it hinged on defense being a guarantee. It hasn’t been that way for the Rams over the last month. The Flyers became the third straight team to shoot better than 50 percent against URI. Their 12 3-pointers were the second-most allowed by URI this season and the most since Jan. 3. Ibi Watson poured in 25 points for the Flyers, making six 3-pointers.
“The last couple of games, we didn’t defend at a high enough level to win the games,” Cox said. “Our offensive production increased. Our efficiency increased. Our shot selection and shot making increased. And our defense took a nosedive in our last few games. When you don’t play elite defense against a team like Dayton with so many weapons, that’s what happens.”
In what was likely his final game as a Ram, Russell again came close to a triple-double with nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists. He departed with 20 seconds left, embracing teammates and coaches.
“Walking off the court, it hit me all at once - everything coach Cox did for me, everything this program did for me and the passion I have for it,” Russell said.
URI was led by Malik Martin with 17 points. Antwan Walker added 13 and Ishmael Leggett scored 10.