(Photo courtesy Johnnie Izquierdo)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
Over his long, productive career at Rhode Island, Fatts Russell has earned the trust of his coaching staff. In the season opener Wednesday night at Mohegan Sun, that trust came back to bite the Rams.
With the Rams in major trouble against No. 18 Arizona State and Russell saddled with two fouls, coach David Cox decided to keep his star in the game but with a stern warning.
“Be careful out there,” Cox said he told Russell.
The move backfired. Russell wasn’t careful enough and picked up a third foul in the first half at the 8:35 mark. Instead of shelving Russell for the rest of the half, Cox opted to insert him back in the game on some offensive possessions and pull him on defense.
That backfired, too. Russell was whistled for his fourth foul with just 1:26 to play in the half. The Rams rallied to cut the halftime deficit to 48-41 but their star was ineffective with just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in 13 minutes.
Russell did play smarter in the second half. Sparked by their little man’s play-making ability (6 assists) and the finishing of Antwan Walker (19 points), Rhody came all the way back to take the lead. The game see-sawed down the stretch but after Russell picked up his fifth and final foul with 5:52 left on a careless reach-in, Rhody’s chances at an upset hit the skids.
Arizona State rallied late and beat Rhody, 94-88, in the 2k Empire Classic.
“Fatts deserves the trust that I gave him tonight,” Cox said. “It was unfortunate he picked up his fourth foul but he helped us get back in that game in the second half.”
URI’s last lead came at 85-84 with 4:49 to play after a Jalen Carey jumper. From there, Arizona rode the shoulders of its All-America guard, Remy Martin. He led all scorers with 26 points.
Jeremy Sheppard tried to carry the Rams late. He finished with 19 points but some poor free throw shooting (14 misses) and some late turnovers combined to deny the Rams.
“We certainly don’t believe in moral victories,” Cox said, “but I’m pleased with the way our guys competed. We fought like crazy in the second half. I thought it was a pretty good showing but there are no moral victories.”
*Antwan Walker and Jeremy Sheppard both scored 19 points. Walker teamed with Fatts Russell on a slew of rim rolls in the second half for dunks and easy scores.
*Remy Martin of Arizona State was clearly the best player on the floor. He’s a legit All-America candidate.
*Fouls, fouls and more fouls. Both teams were over-aggressive on defense and played very, very hard. That added up to 81 free throw attempts. The Rams missed 14 free throws, shooting 21-of-35. The Sun Devils were 34-of-46.
*David Cox joined in on the fun too when he picked a technical foul. “I was a little bit frustrated with the calls. We had four guys with three or more fouls in the first half and Fatts with four. I’ve never coached in a game like that. Seventeen fouls for us in the first half. That was tough but we all, collectively, have to deal with it better and that starts with me.”
*Fatts Russell’s four fouls in the first half were bizarre. With his team down 16 points and in trouble, Coach David Cox tried to squeeze offense/defense possessions out of his star guard but the move backfired.
*Russell played well in the second half with his blazing speed ripping through the ASU defense but he finished with 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
*The Mitchell Brothers combined for 7 points and 10 rebounds but also nine fouls.
NEXT UP: Rams will face Boston College or Villanova Thursday at 7 p.m.