David Cox and the Rams fell short, 68-65 on the road Sunday
The effort was there, once again, for the Rhode Island Rams. The victory, however, was not.
For yet another time on this young season, Rhode Island’s talented team was in position to grab an important non-conference win. Yet another one slipped through its fingers.
This time it was a 68-65 loss at Western Kentucky that drops Rhody to 3-4 on the season heading into Atlantic 10 play. The Rams trailed most of the way but made a late run to tie but a failure to close the deal was reminiscent of losses to both Arizona State and Boston College.
“At this point in the year we’re not that interested in records,” coach David Cox said. “Obviously we go out every game to win. This is a process. We needed to test ourselves in this preseason particularly since we didn’t know how many games we were going to have so we tried to get the seven or eight best games we could. I think it’s evident we can play with just about anybody.”
The Rams must begin winning these competitive games, however, once A-10 play tips off this Friday versus Davidson.
URI trailed by 11 points with just inside 12 minutes to play Sunday but hung tough. With star guard Fatts Russell again slowed a bit by bumps, bruises and the bullseye opposing teams have placed on his back, Rhody was helped by a spark from shooter D.J. Johnson and other contributions.
A Johnson 3-pointer proved key in a 15-3 Rams run that gave URI a 52-51 lead with 7:21 left. Another Johnson trey made it 60-59 WKU with 2:42 left.
Western Kentucky led 64-59 with 1:35 to play but three free throws by Russell after a foul and then a Russell layup after a Mahkel Mitchell block tied the score at 64-64 with 50 seconds left.
Hilltoppers star Charles Bassey (13 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks) then came up with the game’s biggest play. Guard Jordan Rawls snuck into the lane and missed but Bassey followed up with an offensive rebound score with 11 seconds left.
URI’s Jalen Carey was fouled with five seconds to play but he missed the first of two free throws. Carey made the second but WKU’s Taveion Hollingsworth made two free throws with 4.3 on the clock for a 68-65 cushion.
Russell then missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1.9 seconds left to snuff out any last-second dreams.
“We have to lock in with free throws every day in practice,” Cox said of his team, which made 11-of-15 from the line in the game. “We have to step to the line with confidence and knock them down.”
The foul stripe was one of several areas that decided the game. Western Kentucky was 21-of-26 from the line, including 12-of-15 in the second half.
*D.J. Johnson is clearly the Rams’ best shooter. The JuCo transfer smoothly stroked four of his five tries in the game and is now 10-of-23 (43%) for the season.
*Fatts Russell was held to 14 points on 3-of-8 shooting. He did not make a 3-pointer and is now 0-of-7 in the last two games and shooting 29 percent from the floor in his last three games.
The senior leader seems to get frustrated against bigger, physical teams and Western Kentucky fits that bill. Bassey leads the country in blocked shots and as Cox said “I think he spooked our guys a little bit early.”
As for Russell’s struggles, Cox said “he’s balling and he won’t succumb to injuries. He’s the focal point of the (opposing) defense every single night. Teams are physical with him and not letting him turn the corner.”
*The Rams entered the game with a NET ranking of 57. That’s likely to fall a bit after the loss to the Hilltoppers (123). Rhody wins have come over South Florida (NET 125), San Francisco (83) and Seton Hall (15).
NEXT UP: Rhody (3-4) hosts Davidson (3-2) Friday at the Ryan Center. The Wildcats face Charlotte Tuesday before turning their focus to the Rams.