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Rhode Island’s Brian Woodward

January 10, 2004 Columns No Comments



Rams Ready to Face Challenges

by Phil Kasiecki

The relatively small crowd was as loud as it was all night once they got the announcement. It wasn’t one of those raucous crowds the Ryan Center is fast becoming famous for, at least in New England, but it had a decent size as fans filtered in during the game. They saw the big moment with 12:13 left as Brian Woodward’s jumper gave him 1,000 career points, making him the 41st Ram to do so, and his mother was among those in the stands.

Guard Steve Mello, the Rams’ only other senior and holdover from the days before Jim Baron took over as head coach, was among the first to personally congratulate his long-time teammate during the next stoppage of play at mid-court.

“I just said congratulations since I didn’t have much time,” said Mello. “He could have easily gone home and gave up, but he stuck it out. For him to reach 1,000 career points is just great.”

Scoring 1,000 career points might not seem like a monumental accomplishment for someone regarded as a big-time recruit coming out of high school. But for a time, it looked like this moment might never come.

“I’m just very excited and happy,” Woodward said of reaching the milestone. “I just thank God for helping me through my injuries and all the adversity I’ve been through since I’ve been here.”

Woodward came to Kingston after a stellar career at Cardozo High School in Queens, an area always loaded with basketball talent. When you’re among the best in Queens, you’re also among the best in the nation, and Woodward was certainly regarded as such: recruiting guru Bob Gibbons of All-Star Report ranked him 62nd in the class of 1999. It ran in the family, too: his older brother, Duane, had a solid four-year career at Boston College from 1994 through 1998, scoring over 1,200 points and making two NCAA Tournament appearances along the way.

He suffered a torn ACL during his junior year in high school, but rebounded his senior year to be a top recruit. Rhode Island figured to get some desperately needed scoring from him after Lamar Odom left early to play in the NBA, but he sat out under Prop 48. The team struggled mightily, posting a 5-25 mark, so he figured to provide that help the next year. He started the season showing his promise, registering a double-double in his first collegiate game. Then something got in the way: two more knee injuries, limiting him to just eight games on the season. The promise was there as expected, as he averaged just under 14 points per game.

His junior year was fairly non-descript as a coaching change took place, though he gave fans a glimpse of what was to come when he hit a game-winning jumper with two seconds left against Buffalo early that season. At times he bumped heads with Baron, but stayed healthy during the season and the team was noticeably better despite the team’s record being no better than the previous year.

Last season, it all came together, the adversity a distant memory. Woodward was the team leader, leading the team in scoring and rebounding while continuing his penchant for big plays, none bigger than the steal and layup he made at the buzzer against St. Joseph’s in arguably the most dramatic finish in any game of the Ryan Center’s young history. (It’s not like the building has lacked for those moments, either.) In keeping with the theme of not quitting, the game-winning play came right after he had missed a short runner that would have won the game. When it was all said and done, Woodward was a second-team All-Atlantic 10 selection and the Rams went to the NIT, advancing to the second round before Temple knocked them out.

The Rams were a big story, as by the end of the season Baron had led them from the depths of college basketball in Woodward’s early days to the postseason. Much as Baron deserves a great deal of credit for the turnaround, he’s had a pretty good player in the backcourt helping to make his job easier.

“What more can you say about the young man,” Baron said. “When I first got here, seeing the adversity he had gone through – changing over coaches and changing over programs, to get his degree, to weather the injury… to just come out and work.”

“A lot of times, when you take over programs, players can go two ways: they can go either north or south. I think Brian has really shown a lot of character, shown a lot of fortitude. I’m real happy for him.”

Woodward, who says he still occasionally talks with former head coach Jerry DeGregorio, got his bachelor’s degree in communications last year. Doing so allowed him to return, as by graduating in four years he regained the season he originally had to sit out. That gave the Rams their leader back, and Baron has consistently emphasized Woodward’s leadership as a senior who has been through the bad times.

He has earned it on plenty of occasions this season. The do-everything guard is second on the team in scoring and rebounding and third in both assists and steals. He’s been almost automatic at the line, which he was on his big career night – he broke his own school record by making all 16 of his free throws against Yale, accounting for most of his 20 points in the Rams’ win. More importantly, he comes through in the clutch: he scored the last seven points against Brown as the Rams held off the Bears, and in their final game before Christmas, his 12-12 showing at the charity stripe included making all six in overtime as the Rams got a big win against future Atlantic 10 member Charlotte.

His coach isn’t the only one who recognizes his accomplishment and importance to the team.

“I’ve been with Brian for three years, I think he’s a wonderful player, he’s a great person and a good friend,” said Jamaal Wise, perhaps the most improved Ram this season. “I’ll miss him next year, but I’m just happy for him. He got his 1,000th point, he’s worked hard for it.”

The seriousness of playing basketball isn’t all there is to appreciate. After it’s mentioned that he has made 58 of his last 62 free throws, with no percentage given, Woodward blurts out, “93” to give the writers a good laugh. It’s nothing new; he has always been pleasant and engaging in post-game press conferences. Baron doesn’t mind quipping about the boroughs of New York City, saying he’s “happy for him, even though he’s from Queens and I’m from Brooklyn”.

The milestone feels even better in light of all he’s been through, though he isn’t done yet.

“Now, when I look back at it, I don’t only have to look at the bad things that happened,” he said. “I can look back at reaching 1,000 points, the most free throws in a game, going to the NIT, and hopefully going to another postseason tournament after this season.”

This time, it might well be the NCAA Tournament, where the 12-3 Rams look to be headed. It would seem a fitting end to a career that started with low notes and has gone uphill from there.

     

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