SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Barely three weeks ago, Dan Hurley and E.C. Matthews sat in the interview room at the Ryan Center after a tough loss. Hurley and Matthews were low-key, but still upbeat despite dropping a game that they controlled, something that you know doesn’t come easily for the ultra-competitive Hurley. Among other things, Hurley talked about how the Rams would get better from that game, including when it comes to making big plays down the stretch as they go from being a young team to a veteran team.
On Saturday, you could see exactly that. Rhode Island had another test from within the conference, and the result was different. This time, they played like a team that did exactly what Hurley talked about after the loss to VCU. They played with confidence down the stretch, made plays and sealed the game.
“Our will to win was on display,” said Hurley. “We had a pocket of lackadaisical transition defense to start the second half, which got them going a little bit, but when it mattered in the last five or six minutes, we did what we do, which is play great defense and play like winners.”
Down 50-47 with over four minutes left, you could be forgiven for wondering if the Rams might not pull this one out, too. George Washington had a tough afternoon, especially early, but seemed to gain some confidence offensively in the second half. They finally came alive and took the lead, and in a defensive battle like this game was having that momentum as well as the lead was big. But the Rams then scored the next eight points, getting a couple of key stops along the way, and ended the game on a 12-5 run. It was a sharp contrast to the loss to VCU, where VCU took over in the final minutes.
Rhode Island’s growth has been unmistakable, and it’s not just shown by the fact that they have already surpassed last season’s win total. This team is looking more mature, especially sophomores Matthews and Hassan Martin, the latter of whom is already fourth all-time in blocked shots in program history after three more on Saturday to go with 15 points and ten rebounds. Freshman Jared Terrell is starting to grow up, scoring 17 points and getting six steals in his third straight solid game. He scored 19 and 18 in the prior two outings, and in all three of these games has shot over 50 percent from the field.
Behind that young group, you have veterans like Gilvydas Biruta and T.J. Buchanan. Biruta has struggled with fouls at times and hasn’t had a banner year, but he’s been efficient offensively and had big games and moments like at Fordham last week, when he had seven offensive rebounds, the last of which turned into a game-winning tip-in. Buchanan has been the ultimate intangibles guy for this team, a guy who has relished his role off the bench and as a do-everything player.
“We’re young, and we’re fragile, and we’re fragile sometimes within the game,” said Hurley, remaining even-keeled as he has all along about this team. “This group that we’ve brought in here with T.J. (Buchanan) and Gil (Biruta) have changed the entire thought process of winning and losing.”
That the growing process must continue is evident in the team’s offensive play, something Hurley alluded to. They still turn the ball over more than 15 times a game in conference play and don’t shoot the ball well from long range. That means they have to take quality shots and attack more, while taking better care of the ball. Their defense has stood up for them, and it will continue to do so, and perhaps it’s not so bad that it’s the offensive end is where the clear room for growth is as that’s an area where players are always more eager to work.
All the while, this team makes up for it elsewhere until the offense can catch up.
“We lack a little bit of firepower at times, from the perimeter at times,” said Hurley. “What we don’t lack is heart and will and pride in each other and representing this state and university. That never wavers.”
With VCU losing to Richmond on Saturday, Rhode Island is just a game back from first place in the Atlantic 10. There is a lot of basketball still left to play, and the Rams don’t have it easy with five of the remaining nine games on the road, starting at Richmond on Sunday after a week off. The path to becoming a winning team is not a straight line, and that will be the case for this team as well, so they might drop another one they perhaps should win in addition to possibly winning one they probably shouldn’t. The more important thing is how this team develops, and of late, they’re starting to grow up and do things they saw more experienced opponents do not that long ago against them. Getting a win to have something to show for it only helps.