Rhody’s ball control led to A-10 championship

Tournament MVP E.C. Matthews (0) scored 19 points and was part of a Rhode Island backcourt which committed just six turnovers in the Rams 70-63 victory over VCU in the Atlantic 10 championship game. (Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

By PAUL GOTHAM

PITTSBURGH, PA — Rhode Island won their only regular season meeting with Virginia Commonwealth University. That didn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement, and when it came to preparing for a rematch in Sunday’s Atlantic 10 Championship game, head coach Dan Hurley wanted to take away VCU’s strength.

A URI adjustment limited turnovers and kept VCU from getting downhill.

“When we played VCU the first time, we didn’t see a lot of that pressure and we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for it,” Hurley said Sunday after URI’s 70-63 win in the A-10 title game. “What we tried to do is take a little bit more of like a one-three-one approach against it, so we had three guards that could handle it.”

The result?

Rhode Island committed just six turnovers against a team which forces more than 15 per game. Little more than two weeks prior, URI committed 14 miscues in a 69-59 win at home. On a neutral court Sunday, with a tournament championship and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, Hurley saw no reason for chance.

URI’s guards Jeff Dowtin, Jarvis Garrett, E.C. Matthews, Stanford Robinson and Jared Terrell made use of a wall in the court’s center third.

“We tried to put Kuran Iverson as much as we could in the middle as a big target,” Hurley explained. “We just tried to space him out and avoid trapping situations.”

Rhody’s offense became its best defense. VCU, which scores 13.5 per game off turnovers, managed just six points off miscues on Sunday – its second-lowest total of the season.

“We just let the game come to us, and we didn’t try to do too much with the ball, dribbling,” Terrell explained. “When we needed to pass it, we passed it. And when we needed to drive, we drove it and made plays for each other.”

Rhode Island committed just two turnovers in the first half and allowed only one point on those miscues taking a 40-27 lead into the locker room – VCU’s largest halftime deficit of the season.

“We’ve got to do a better job of guarding the ball and speeding them up,” VCU’s JeQuan Lewis said. “They were playing comfortable a lot today in the first half. I feel like the last ten minutes when we realized that we were down and had to play catchup that’s when we kind of started turning it up on defense and guarding the ball. But it’s going to take 40 minutes if we want to win championships.”

“There’s three or four steals we had, we were just a step (away),” VCU coach Will Wade said. “We were just right there and couldn’t really grab them.”

Tournament MVP Matthews scored 19 points, handed out two assists and committed one turnover in 34 minutes.

“We knew they was going to pressure us in the full court,” Matthews said. “We just had to be patient, make moves and just attack it.”

“For the most part this year, we have been a team hasn’t turned the ball over a lot,” Hurley noted. “Yeah, we’ve had some moments where we’ve had some bad games, but consistently, we’ve been pretty good with the ball.”

Dowtin’s influence was not to be overlooked. The freshman guard, who was pressed into service earlier in the season when Garrett was sidelined for eight games with an illness, handed out four assists while committing one turnover in 27 minutes of work.

“Dowtin did a really good job tonight,” Wade said. “He handled our pressure a lot better. He was a little bit shaky when we played them at their place. I thought he did a good job handling the pressure.”

Rhode Island (24-9) claimed its first Atlantic 10 tournament championship since 1999. The Rams, an 11-seed in the Midwest region will open the NCAA Tournament against No. 6-seed Creighton on Friday. A 4:30 pm tipoff is scheduled in Sacramento.

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