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Rhode Island Surprise

January 20, 2003 Columns No Comments

Rhode Island Surprise

by Phil Kasiecki

Jim Baron didn’t see it happen. It might be fitting, considering many didn’t see Rhode Island playing as they have prior to this season, although he has also seen this kind of finish often this season.

“I was more concerned on the first shot than I was the second”, Baron said of the two shots in the final seconds of the game, the first of which was a miss. “I was just trying to fight for my players”, he added, feeling that Woodward was fouled on his first shot.

Baron didn’t see Brian Woodward steal the ball from St. Joseph’s center Dwayne Jones, then go back up and beat the buzzer in one motion for the winning shot on Sunday, but he knew what happened when the 5,916 fans in the Ryan Center went crazy. They knocked off a Hawks team that would have made a strong bid for the top 25 had they pulled the game out. Fans in the lower sections rushed the floor along with the players to celebrate the biggest win in the young history of the Ryan Center.

“I was going after the first shot”, Baron said on missing it, “and then, the second one, I saw everybody excited and I was like, ‘Holy smokes’. I didn’t realize it went in, I’m fighting the fight with the referees.”

The Rams have had three games come down to the final seconds this season, winning all three. They defeated USC in the first game ever played at the Ryan Center after a controversial shot by Desmon Farmer was waived off as coming after time expired, then beat in-state rival Providence as the Friars had a missed layup with one second left that would have tied the game and sent it to overtime. Sunday’s game might have topped both of them, as the Rams trailed for a good portion of the second half before scoring the game’s final 7 points.

“Wow, that was incredible”, Baron said in Sunday’s post-game press conference.

The Rams have won four straight games and are now 11-4 on the season, including 3-1 in Atlantic Ten games. The 3-1 mark is good for second place in the East Division of the Atlantic Ten, just one half game behind St. Joseph’s. Many projected the Rams to again be bottom-feeders as Baron continued to rebuild the team, but the Rams have exceeded expectations largely due to their perimeter unit. They force more turnovers than any other Atlantic Ten team, and three of their top four scorers play on the perimeter. They have had to rely on the perimeter players in part because the frontcourt is not very strong and undersized, though the committee of frontcourt players has likewise exceeded expectations.

The Rams’ success in some respects is a microcosm of the Atlantic Ten, a conference that looks to be on the upswing after going downhill the last few seasons; last season, only one team made the NCAA Tournament. Xavier has been nationally ranked for most of the season, while St. Joseph’s and Dayton look like solid NCAA Tournament contenders and many consider Richmond to be in the mix as well. They have helped the conference thrive despite the struggles of traditional power Temple, as well as Massachusetts, which at one time won five consecutive conference titles and made seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Now the talk is that the Rams, who were picked no higher than fifth in many preseason publications and the Atlantic Ten coaches, are on the road to postseason play. With the way the season has gone thus far, such projections mean even less at this point than usual, but Baron and his players are keeping focused on the present and maintaining some perspective.

“For people to even talk about that is incredible”, Baron said. “You think of where we came from with this program, two years ago we won five games, three years ago we won seven, last year we won eight. It’s all perspective.”

Sophomore guard Hellenga added that he’s only looking ahead to Wednesday night. “I think we’re just looking ahead to Temple”, he said. “We’re going to enjoy this win tonight, wake up tomorrow morning and go hard in practice, two hard days of practice and hopefully get a win on Wednesday. I’m not really worried about any tournaments right now, it doesn’t even cross my mind.”

Hellenga also commented on how close the team is, which seemed to be lacking in the seasons prior to Baron’s arrival when they lacked life under Jerry DeGregorio. “This year we’re a totally different team. We’re close, we’re like a family. We know we can pull every game out, we believe we can win every game. Some people don’t, and that’s why they take us lightly, and that’s why it catches up to them.”

The beautiful new Ryan Center opened in November, and thus far the Rams are 6-2 in the new building. Attendance has nearly doubled, partly from the building having more than twice the capacity of Keaney Gymnasium and more from the excitement of the new facility and increased expectations for the team. So far, it has made a difference, and with the Rams playing well, attendance should only continue to increase. The crowd was lively near the end of the game, and it was not lost on Baron.

“I thought the crowd really got into it”, Baron said before thanking those who came out on the Sunday afternoon and looking ahead to their next game, a home date with Temple. “We got a big one Wednesday night, we look forward to having the total student body back, and we hope everybody comes up and gets this Ryan Center rocking and rolling. It became loud in there.”

Woodward also likes the atmosphere at games now. “It’s great”, he started. “The fans make it harder for the other teams that play in here, which is great. You have a lot of confidence when you come in, and just play hard.”

So far, the Rams are playing hard indeed, and the early returns suggest that we could see them in March after another of Baron’s great coaching jobs.


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