The University of Rhode Island’s difficult non-conference schedule was designed in part as preparation for Atlantic 10 play.
Lessons learned were outweighed by a continued tough road in Friday’s A-10 opener.
Davidson was up to its usual tricks, clogging things up defensively and giving URI fits with its offensive approach. The Rams struggled to score after a hot start and never got their stars going in a 67-58 loss at the Ryan Center, their third straight defeat.
“Davidson came here and executed their game plan really well. It’s a disappointing loss for us,” URI head coach David Cox said. “I thought our defense was solid today. It wasn’t elite and it needed to be elite. More importantly, our offense, our shooting as well as our free throw shooting, was a major disappointment and probably the catalyst for us losing the game.”
URI is now 3-5, stuck in a three-game losing streak that comes on the heels of three consecutive wins. Every opponent in URI’s non-conference slate was in the KenPom top 100. Davidson fits the same bill and shook off some of its own struggles to fire an opening salvo in league play. The Wildcats lost close games to Texas and Providence in the Maui Invitational and were coming off a shaky performance in a loss to Charlotte just three days ago.
Hot shooting by Malik Martin powered a blistering start for URI. Entering with three 3-pointers all year, Martin made three on consecutive possessions as the Rams jumped to a seven-point lead. They made seven of their first eight shots, getting the big lift from Martin and several buckets inside by Makhel Mitchell. Fatts Russell had four assists in the early going.
Davidson shot the ball well, too, and managed to sustain it better than URI, which made just four of its last 18 shots in the first half after the hot start. A 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer by Hyunjung Lee gave the Wildcats their largest lead to that point, a 32-28 cushion.
The streaky offense is not a new phenomenon for the Rams, who have been on a rollercoaster in several of their games.
“We’ve got to figure that out,” Cox said. “We played 10 guys tonight. We might be getting to the point where we’re going to have to shorten that rotation so guys can get a little more comfortable playing with one another. After the first 10 minutes today, they didn’t remain connected. They weren’t comfortable enough playing with one another. That’s an issue and it’s something I have to address.”
The Rams opened the second half with seven straight points on two buckets by Makhel Mitchell and another 3-pointer by Martin. It was the start URI needed, but it didn’t last, and Davidson’s response was emphatic. Three 3-pointers sparked a 13-0 run that made it 52-39.
Allen Betrand ended a scoring drought of 6:27 with a 3-pointer. A 3 by Ishmael Leggett and a steal and layup by Fatts Russell got URI going on a 12-2 run of its own before Davidson delivered a strong finish. A three-point play by Luka Brajkovic pushed a 54-51 lead out to 57-51. Carter Collins converted a layup and was fouled with 2:21 left. He missed the free throw, but Davidson scooped the rebound, which led to a dagger 3-pointer by Lee and a nine-point lead.
The Rams finished at 40 percent from the field. Take away the 7-of-8 start and the number would be 32 percent. URI also struggled at the free-throw line, hitting seven of 18. The 58 points were a season-low.
Russell scored only five points, his fewest since scoring three in last year’s A-10 opener, as he continued to battle a nagging heel injury. The other starting guard, Jeremy Sheppard, was scoreless.
“Jeremy, I thought his defense on [Kellan] Grady in the first half was excellent. A lot of times when you’re focused in on locking down the opponent’s best player, your offense suffers a little bit. He never really got a rhythm going,” Cox said. “Fatts, again, it’s a culmination of things. We put him on the ball a little bit more today, hoping to get him in a little more of a rhythm. That also means that all eyes are on him. Every ball screen they were running the two guys at him. We’ve just got to continue to work through this until I can get him a rhythm and get him some cleaner looks.”
Grady, a first-team all-conference pick, was held to 11 points for Davidson, but Collins picked up the slack with a game-high 22. Lee added 16.
“We were obviously concerned with their number of shooters as well as their motion offense,” Cox said. “Our thought process was if we could limit their 3-point attempts and limit their makes, we might have a chance. In the first half, we did a heck of a job on Grady but both Collins and Lee got open looks and they kind of got the ball rolling.”
Martin gave URI a significant lift with a career-high 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Mitchell added 12 points. Betrand was a bright spot in his URI debut. Newly eligible after an NCAA rule change for transfers, Betrand scored eight points.
Junior big man Jermaine Harris left with a leg injury late in the second half after a collision in rebounding action. His status was not yet known for the postgame video conference. The Rams are already dealing with one injury in the frontcourt, as Makhi Mitchell is out for the season after getting hurt in Sunday’s loss to Western Kentucky.
URI has now lost its league opener for three straight years, only to find greener pastures down the road, which happened quickly last year. They won 10 straight last season after a loss in their A-10 opener. They’ll be hoping to start something similar this year when they host St. Bonaventure Dec. 30.