By KEVIN McNAMARA
It’s time for the last rodeo, or a miracle run.
That’s where things stand for the Rhode Island Rams as the Atlantic 10 Championship begins this week. Rhody (10-14, 7-10) take on Dayton (13-8, 9-7) in a second round game Thursday at 3:30 p.m. It’s a do-or-die moment for both teams, two programs that owned lofty expectations entering this bizarre pandemic season but are now just hoping to keep on bouncing the basketball.
“It was a tough regular season run, but it’s behind us now,” URI coach David Cox said. “We feel comfortable and confident right now.”
Asked why that is the case for a team that wrapped up the regular season losing six of the last seven games, the coach said “we were competitive. I think that this group of guys have gone through a lot and become stronger because of it.”
URI’s only win in the last seven games? Against Dayton in the final Ryan Center home game, a 91-89 double overtime thriller. Rhody’s visit to Dayton back on Jan. 30 didn’t end so well as the Flyers rallied nicely in a dominant second half on the way to a 67-56 victory.
So who had the upper hand in those two games? Cox says the Flyers did. Rhody’s attack was shut down in that first meeting and the Rams gallantly rallied from an 18-point second half deficit in Kingston.
“They have been, in all honesty, the better team,” Cox said. “We have to tighten up some things, especially defensively, in order to have a chance.”
One glaring piece of bad news is that senior guard Jeremy Sheppard is nursing a leg injury and isn’t expected to play Thursday. He has not been ruled out if the Rams advance in the tournament. This will put an even greater spotlight on star guard Fatts Russell. He went off for 20 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals in the win over Dayton but in the road loss he hurt his ankle and was just 1-of-6 for four points. Russell shot just 5-for-23 (1-of-8 from the 3-poiint stripe) from the floor against the Flyers.
Freshman Ishmael Leggett hurt Dayton for 18 points a few weeks back and he’ll be asked to step in for Sheppard and deliver. The frontcourt pair of Makhel Mitchell and Antwan Walker both recorded double-doubles against the Flyers and need to play big once again.
Dayton remains a tough team to figure. The Flyers come in after beating two top-tier teams in Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure but also losing to lowly Saint Joseph’s. Can seniors Jalen Crutcher and Ibi Watson develop some dominating consistency and lead the Flyers on a run? In a word, yes.
The URI-Dayton winner gets a booby prize: a date with VCU on its home floor Friday at 3:30. VCU’s Rams secured the No. 2 seed in the tournament. St. Bonny is the top seed.