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Rhode Island NIT Action

March 27, 2003 Columns No Comments

March Madness a Big Hit in Rhode Island

by Phil Kasiecki

Basketball is a hit in Rhode Island. Or at least, it was, for a few nights anyway.

No team from Boston made the NCAA Tournament, making it a disappointing year in Beantown, but all three of Rhode Island’s Division I teams made postseason play in the NIT. Brown lost its first game, but Providence and Rhode Island each made it to the second round before bowing out, and each school also got two home games along the way. Most recently, the schools each had one on back-to-back nights.

The Friars beat College of Charleston on Saturday night, 69-64, in front of a half-full Dunkin’ Donuts Center that at times got as loud as it has been all season long. The place erupted when sophomore forward Rob Sanders came in alone on a breakaway and threw the ball off the backboard for a dunk – all while head coach Tim Welsh couldn’t bear to watch. After the game, his expressions were just as priceless.

“I didn’t think he’d go to that… depth,” he said, with laughter from others present. “When his juices are flowing, he’s hard to stop, and tonight he was pumped up.

“I’m glad it wasn’t on TV, because it would be on many clinics throughout the country, how to run a fast break.”

Asked if he yelled at Sanders for it during the timeout just after the dunk, he summed up the crowd.

“That’s pretty hard to do – when you come out and the whole building is on its feet, and you’re going to yell at a guy,” Welsh said. “I didn’t say anything. We might discuss it tomorrow though.”

On Monday night, over 7,000 showed up on two days’ notice as the Friars took on Big East rival Georgetown. The Friars led for most of the first half, before the Hoyas took the lead in the second half. Hoya All-American Mike Sweetney picked up his fourth foul with 14:22 left, but his time on the bench was not a problem as Georgetown outscored Providence 14-8 during the nearly 8 minutes that he sat. The teams combined for 44 turnovers and shot a combined 36.7% from the field as Georgetown would pull out a 67-58 win.

The Friars finish the season at 18-14, and Welsh enjoyed the season with the players he had.

“Our guys were very focused to keep playing,” Welsh said after Saturday night’s win. “They want to keep playing this season. They’re excited about having another home game on Monday, they’re excited about playing Georgetown. I don’t have to give any speeches about playing in the NIT – they’re fired up, they want to keep going.”

The Friars will head into next season with a lot of positives. They lose just one senior from a team that finished strong and showed excellent chemistry. Sophomores Ryan Gomes and Rob Sanders will be the keys in the frontcourt, while Donnie McGrath and Sheiku Kabba start in the backcourt. McGrath hit the wall after an excellent first couple of months, but he’s a competitor and will be fine running the show next season. The Friars also signed a good class, headed by versatile perimeter player Dwight Brewington and scoring guard Gerald Brown. Brewington is the better of the two and should see significant minutes right away, as he can play any of the three perimeter positions.

In addition to the players, Welsh appreciated the fans who came out and had much to say about others who helped the games succeed as they did behind the scenes.

“I’m going to have to take the whole ticket office out to dinner, that’s for sure, because they’ve been working overtime,” he said. “The ticket office people are in there until 9:30 at night, and last time I looked I don’t think they’re getting paid overtime.

“People around here are excited about the whole NIT, and I am too, and so are the kids, and the kids feel it.”

Meanwhile, south of the state capital, the resurgent University of Rhode Island saw postseason play for the first time since their NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999. The Rams knocked off Seton Hall last week on a late three-pointer by Dawan Robinson, then took on Temple Tuesday night at the Ryan Center.

The Rams started out making some shots early, and eventually built up a 29-20 lead late in the first half. But the Owls came back to score the last 10 of the half, and in the second half the Rams never attacked the matchup zone and shot just 24%, dropping their season finale 61-53 to finish the season at 19-12.

7,214 people showed up for the game, the third-largest crowd ever at a game in Kingston, and they meant business. On many occasions during the game, the crowd noise was almost deafening, making for an atmosphere never before seen in Kingston. Perhaps the ultimate show of the crowd support came when the game ended on Tuesday night: the players stayed out on the court for a minute, while the fans cheered loudly for them even though they had just lost to end the season. The fan support was not lost on head coach Jim Baron or senior Howard Smith.

“The crowd was absolutely magic,” Baron said. “I can’t thank them enough, the community, the student body, the alumni, families that put their children to the games… it was electric.”

“For the fans, to give us a standing ovation after a loss in the last game… that’s where the joy came in, because they obviously appreciated what we did,” Smith said. “And we appreciate what we got from them, because without them we wouldn’t have had a couple of wins, so we thank them a lot. But for them to stand up and give us a standing ovation, that was big, and I felt that.”

Baron thought this year’s team could be good, but winning 19 games and making the NIT surprised even him. He had no hard numbers, but expected the team to be competitive and improve, which he certainly got.

“No, never in my wildest dreams,” Baron said when asked if he imagined this season turning out as it has. “It’s absolutely incredible. But that’s how this game is.

“It’s tremendous to think of where we came from, and where we’re at. Going into the second round of postseason and to see a sellout the way we did, it was absolutely tremendous.”

Smith also reflected on the program’s rise late in his career, as he was at Rhode Island when the team struggled to 5-25 and 7-23 seasons under Jerry DeGregorio.

“Going from 8 to 19 wins, you can’t be upset about that,” Smith said. “That’s what the young guys are looking at next year, to work even harder.

“I’m thankful for being on the team that got 19 wins and went to the postseason, because I never experienced that my first three years. And I’m very glad that the young kids had a lot of experience, so when next year comes and they’re in the same predicaments, you know, they’ll be more poised, more aggressive, and they’ll pull some wins out.”

All the while, Smith, whose father was in Desert Storm, remembered current events as well.

“I’m playing, and in the middle of the game, everything goes still because, I mean, there’s something out there bigger than what’s going on,” he said. “Thankfully, we can take people’s mind off of it for 40 minutes.”

Temple head coach John Chaney, who looked to be a little more energetic than he was in his first visit to the Ryan Center, also appreciated the fan support the Rams had after being asked if he paid any attention to the students who were on him most of the night.

“You got some good fans here, real good fans,” he said.

Indeed they do. For three nights, March Madness hit Rhode Island, and the Ocean State welcomed it with open arms.

Esherick: “The best conference in the country”

After Monday night’s win, Georgetown head coach Craig Esherick minced no words about the quality of the Big East Conference in light of what transpired during the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

“We beat a good team, a good Big East team, a team that is from the best conference in the country on the road,” Esherick said, before elaborating. “We beat a very good team that is playing well from the best conference in the country on the road, and I think our guys need to be very proud of how they played.”

When a writer kidded him about his statements, he did not back off.

“I got proof now,” he said. “I just had a supposition before, I have proof now.”

Esherick’s remarks were no doubt aimed at the NCAA Tournament Selection committee, which took just four teams from the Big East for the NCAA Tournament and snubbed Boston College and Seton Hall. In turn, all four Big East teams advanced to the Sweet 16, giving the Big East more representatives than any other conference.

When the press conference was over, Esherick reiterated his earlier statements.

“Did everybody get that, what I said about what the best conference in the country is?” Esherick asked. “Everybody write that down now, the best conference in the country, the Big East.”


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