By PAUL GOTHAM
PITTSBURGH, PA — This is how it was supposed to be.
E.C. Matthews demanding an opposing defense’s attention, and Hassan Martin capitalizing on one-to-one coverage in the paint. Jared Terrell picking his spots, and Kuran Iverson using freakish athletic abilities to put his imprint on Sunday’s Atlantic 10 Championship.
Tournament MVP Matthews netted 19. Terrell poured in 20, and Rhode Island claimed its first conference crown since 1999 with a 70-63 victory over Virginia Commonwealth University in front of 7,025 at PPG Paints Arena.
A month ago it seemed unlikely, at best.
The Rams had dropped two straight at home, and it looked like the team’s health would once again derail a once promising season.
Since then Rhody forgot how to lose.
“It just made us stronger,” Matthews said after Sunday’s win. “I think without those lumps in the season, we wouldn’t be ready for what we just did.”
Five days after falling to eventual regular season champion Dayton on February 10th, URI hit 17 of 56 from the floor including 2 of 20 from behind the arc in a 53-43 loss to Fordham. Those Rams improved to 11-15 and 5-9 with the win.
URI (24-9) dropped to 16-9 and 8-5.
“It was just a little adversity we faced,” Terrell added. “But it’s nothing that we haven’t seen. We were just able to bounce back and respond how we always have.”
URI hit 25 3-pointers in three games of the A-10 championship. They shot 46.3 from long range.
“We got crushed after the Fordham loss,” Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley said. “We just were inept offensively. We played hard as heck that game. They shot like 34 percent from the field and scored 53 points. We were just in a funk after we let Dayton off the hook late in that game.”
Excuses were readily available. A quadricep injury forced Martin to miss five games early in the season. The senior forward returned, and Jarvis Garrett went to the sideline with an illness for eight contests. URI looked destined for the same outcome that hijacked their 2015-2016 campaign when Matthews spent the season sidelined.
Coming off 2014-2015 when URI ranked among the nation’s best in defensive efficiency, field-goal percentage defense and team blocks, the Rams looked poised to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
Then Matthews suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener. Martin was limited because of ailments throughout the season before finally shutting it down for the final four games. Garrett wore a face mask for the final 10 games of the season after suffering a broken jaw.
URI lost in the A-10 opening round and finished 17-15.
Wins over then No. 24 Cincinnati and Belmont sandwiched a loss to top-ranked Duke earlier this season. A pair of road setbacks preceded Martin’s injury. Rhode Island struggled to find consistency.
“We got off to a good start this year beating Cincinnati,” Hurley noted. “Obviously we lost that game to Duke, and then beat Belmont, and then lost those tough back-to-back games at Valpo and Providence. And then listen, we got hurt. You see what injuries do to teams across college basketball. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality.”
Having trailed for just :43 in three games of the A-10 championship, URI enters the NCAA tournament ranked 32nd in the country holding opponents to 64.9 points per game. Their field-goal percentage defense of 40.4 is 30th and their three-point percentage defense of 29.0 is third in the nation.
On the end of the floor, URI hit an eye-popping 12 of 20 behind the arc in Saturday’s semi-final win over Davidson. They followed with 8 of 20 (40.0 percent) performance against VCU in the final. For the three games, the Rams hit 75 of 141 shots (53.2 percent) and scored nearly a point per possession.
Has URI found its stride at the right time?
“I’ve said this for awhile now, for the last, you know, several weeks, last ten, 12, 13 games, this is who we are when we’re healthy,” Hurley commented after the semifinal win over Davidson. “We’re that type of defensive team. We have the ability to be that explosive on offense.
“I just think we got so much resiliency from what we went through last year, what we went through at different parts of this year. I just think that that came to the forefront late in the year when we got healthy.”
Hurley liked his team’s chances when Rhode Island headed to Pittsburgh. The one-time high school coach, who counts his hall-of-fame dad, Bob and brother, Bobby, the Duke Blue Devil legend and current Arizona State head coach among his coaching tree, had his first big college win in the Steel City. Hurley, then the coach at Wagner College, led the Seahawks to a road win over then No. 15 Pittsburgh. The hotel where his Wagner team used in 2011?
“We stayed in the same hotel that we stayed in when we beat those guys when I was at Wagner,” Hurley noted. “We beat them here and that kind of launched my career.
“My room number here was 1115. My brother wore 11 in college, and I was 15 in college. Obviously a lot more people know his number than mine. But there was some omens. I felt really good coming in about how we were playing. You know, I don’t want to leave Pittsburgh. I love it here.”
On To The Big Dance
Rhode Island, an 11-seed, will open Midwest regional play against No. 6-seed Creighton (25-9) of the Big East. The Bluejays are led by Marcus Foster (18.3 ppg) and Justin Patton (13.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg).
“We are an elite defensive team, and we have the type of wing players in Jared and E.C. that have the ability to carry us for different points. We have inside strength. We have shot blocking. We have depth. We play as hard as any team in the country. I think we’re well-prepared.
“We’ve just developed a culture that we will be ready when we play.”
Creighton and Rhode Island will tipoff from Sacramento, CA at 4:30 pm on Friday.