AMHERST, MASS. - Nothing has come easy for the URI men’s basketball team over the past week. Their 64-63 win over UMass on Saturday was no exception.
After a lighting-quick start, the Rams held off a late Minutemen charge thanks to a pair of Fatts Russell free throws with 2.2 seconds on the clock.
“I wanted to take the ball out, but [head coach Dave Cox] told me not to,” Russell said of the winning play. “[Cox] wanted the ball in my hands. As soon as I got it, I saw one of our big-men set a screen. When he did that, my man got out of the way.
“It was just me and Tre Mitchell. I got a speed advantage over him. When I got by him, I saw him coming full-speed. Got into his body, drew the contact.”
That body foul ended what had been another phenomenal night for Minuteman freshman Mitchell. He scored 30 points at the Ryan Center in a loss last month, and poured in 34 more against the Rams on Saturday. He scored the final seven points for his team, and gave them the lead three different times in the final two minutes of play.
“We just couldn’t stop him,” Cox said of Mitchell. “We were very attentive to his 3-point shooting. He’s 6-foot-8 with a very high release point. Unless you’re literally in his shirt, it’s hard to block that.
“[Never seen someone like Mitchell in the A-10]. Not with the combination of agility, strength, and that skillset. No. I’ve seen really good athletes, good dunkers, good post players. Maybe some big-men that can stretch the floor a bit. [Mitchell] can do it all.”
Mitchell hit six 3-pointers, and had 12 rebounds. The dynamic forward was a one-man wrecking crew all night, getting each and every URI frontcourt player into serious foul trouble.
Both Cyril Langevine and Mekhi Long fouled out of the contest. Antwan Walker finished with four personals, while Jacob Toppin and Jermaine Harris each had three.
That foul trouble is what allowed UMass to claw back into the game after falling behind by 17 points in the first half. Harris and Tyrese Martin shot right out of the gate, helping the Rams out to a 19-0 run at one point.
“It was awesome,” Cox said of the first half offense. “Thirteen assists at the half, exactly what we needed. You have to give [Russell] a lot of credit. We ran a play for Fatts to get downhill in the second-half. He had a lay-up, but he sprayed it out to Tyrese instead for a big three. Those types of things become contagious.”
After dishing out those 13 assists in the first half, the Rams had just three dimes in the final 20 minutes. The foul trouble, combined with poor shooting nights from Russell (3-12), Martin (4-13) and Dowtin (4-10), slowed down the Ram attack in crunch time.
“Our guys showed a lot of resolve, particularly down the stretch,” Cox said. “This guy right here [Russell], he’s the ultimate competitor. To get himself to the line and to knock those two down, that was huge.”
Dowtin and Russell went back-and-forth with Mitchell in the final minute. Dowtin answered a Mitchell 3-pointer with a floating jumper. Russell matched a Mitchell lay-in with one of his own, and then drew the decisive foul against the league’s most talented freshman.
“We never questioned that we were going to win,” Russell said. “We discussed how we were going to stop Tre Mitchell. He’s a monster.”
“Amazing game,” Cox said. “Big-time win for us. We needed that badly. We knew how well UMass was playing coming into this game. That’s a heck of a team. Tre Mitchell is one of the best big men in the country. Regardless of class.”
The question of confidence was raised on a few occasions at the post-game press conference. Neither Cox nor Russell seemed to be lacking in that department following the team’s 21st win over the season.
“I am really pleased with this win,” Cox said. “It gets us at 13-5 [in the A-10], solidly in third-place, double-bye [in the A-10 Tournament]. That’s something we’ve been trying to get all year, and it was slipping away from us the last few weeks.
“We won 21 games. We lost to two really good teams. I feel very confident. We won 13 [conference games], when we won the league a few years ago, we won 15. There’s nothing to be disappointed about at all, nothing to prove to anyone. The people that are with us, they’re with us. If you’re not, that’s okay. We’ve got what we need.”
“I’m a confident guy, regardless of if the ball is going in or not,” Russell said. “I’ve been struggling the past couple of games, but it happens to the best of us. I’ll be ready when [the] conference [tournament starts], trust that.”
For those who want to keep Russell to his word, the No. 3 seeded Rams will kick off the A-10 Tournament this coming Friday at 8:30 p.m., opponent still to be determined. URI could play one of three teams in their opener: Duquesne, La Salle or Fordham.