SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – You can’t blame Dan Hurley if he felt frustrated and maybe in a bad place. He’s hyper-competitive and his team just lost a game that they controlled, and one where correspondingly they led most of the way. It’s a game they should have had in many respects. On Tuesday night, however, the Rhode Island mentor kept perspective, and he didn’t have to look far for an example of what he’s striving for.
“That’s a top team, obviously the class of our conference,” said Hurley after URI dropped a tough one to VCU on Tuesday. “It felt like we deserved a better result.”
URI did many things well. They controlled the game, and even did it not by slowing the game down against a VCU team that tries to speed opponents up. They played fast, too, and they beat pressure – whether in the backcourt or forecourt – with great movement without the ball and ball movement. They defended very well, taking VCU out of what they wanted to do. They had a 44-32 edge on the glass and a 42-28 edge in points in the paint.
You know Hurley and this young team are taking no moral victories from this one. VCU may have been the favorite in the eyes of many, but URI is good, too. Both teams entered the night at 3-0 in Atlantic 10 play. Both teams entered the night streaking, VCU having won eight in a row and URI having won six straight. For good measure, URI’s 3-0 start included two road wins. It was a more evenly-matched game than some might think given the programs’ recent respective histories.
“We’ve got some great young players, we just couldn’t finish,” said Hurley. “We’ve got such a good team, and you have to play 40 minutes to beat a team like that that has a chance to play deep into the NCAA Tournament. To beat them, you’ve got to play a full 40; we probably played a really good 35 minutes.”
When URI went up 51-43 on a dunk by Hassan Martin with 7:06 left, you had a feeling they might be on their way. They controlled the game for most of the night, they almost had their biggest lead (they led by nine just two minutes earlier), they held VCU to about 37 percent from the field, and VCU couldn’t even score at the foul line.
Then VCU came alive. Before you knew it, they tied it at 51 with eight unanswered points, but URI had another answer to get back up by five. They didn’t suddenly fall off after losing a lead they had for much of the game, as we see happen often. Then VCU took over, but URI still had a chance in the final minute. A turnover while down three doomed them. That’s when the experience different shined through.
“(E.C. Matthews) is a sophomore player, Hassan (Martin) is a sophomore player,” said Hurley. “These guys are going to learn to make those plays the way Treveon Graham is making those plays as a senior player. It’s not an easy thing to do in a game like that against an opponent like that.”
URI can come out of this game knowing that they can play with anybody. VCU has done nothing to dispel the notion that they are the team to beat in the Atlantic 10 thus far, and their good non-conference schedule and the wins they got place them into the top ten in RPI. URI had a chance to win this one. They didn’t, though, and while they can feel like they can play with anybody, they also know there is clear room to improve.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves here,” said Hurley. “Every time we get a chance to go out and play, it’s an opportunity to get a good win. There are no bad losses for us in this league. We feel like we’re going to improve and become a good team. That’s all we need to stay focused on. We’re not demoralized in losing to a top 20 team that’s the class of our league in a game where we probably out-played them for 90 percent of the game, 95 percent. We’re going to focus on building on this, working on improving on the things we struggled with. I don’t think we should feel bad about the way that we just performed. I have a lot of pride in our team. I’m excited to watch the film of this tomorrow with the guys, and I think they’ll feel better about themselves after they watch.”
Hurley is clearly taking a positive road right now and taking the long view. With this young group, there is clear upside, and there has been clear improvement. Tuesday night showed that, although not getting rewarded with a win stings. They wouldn’t necessarily be that much better had they managed to score six more points on Tuesday night, though they would have a different feeling from the outcome and that could boost them further. At this point, though, they will get better, beat many teams, and later, their level of play just might be enough to win a game like the one on Tuesday night.