Freshman Ishmael Leggett shined in win over Fordham. (Photo by Alan Hubbard)
By KEVIN WEHNER
Defense wins, travels well and keeps coaches smiling.
That was the case in a Sunday matinee for the Rhode Island Rams on a day when the offense just wasn’t clicking.
Rhode Island (8-8, 5-4 A-10) climbed back to even on the season after winning a defensive battle, 52-42, against Atlantic 10 cellar-dwellar Fordham (1-7, 1-7 A-10). If you like offense, this wasn’t the game for you. It was Rhode Island’s lowest point total in a victory since Dec. 6, 2016 when it bested Old Dominion, 51-39.
It took nearly 34 minutes but the URI Rams did eventually turn it on offensively down the stretch in orchestrating a 13-2 scoring run in the final 6:50 to put the game out of reach. The run included two consecutive 3-pointers from Allen Betrand and Ishmael Leggett. Those treys were followed by a ferocious one-handed slam from Antwan Walker that expanded the lead to eight with 3:50 to go.
That was a deficit that proved insurmountable for a Fordham team that shot just 22.2 percent from field goal range in the second half. The Fordham Rams ranked last in NCAA Division 1 in scoring per contest with 51.0 coming into the game.
Rhody only shot 37 percent for the game, 27 percent from the 3-point line. Jeremy Sheppard led URI with 16 points and 9 rebounds, while freshman Ishmael Leggett added 12 and 7 boards.
URI’s offensive woes could largely be attributed to not playing without star guard Fatts Russell. He was ruled out before the game for what was called `a core muscle injury.’ Russell, the team’s leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, is listed as day-to-day.
“The biggest issue we had today was running our offense fluently because we have a lot of sets,” Coach David Cox said about his absence on the floor. “(Russell’s) played under this system now for three years. Nobody else has had that luxury.”
In Russell’s absence Sheppard was the offensive focal-point. He was especially important in a first half where his team really struggled but the senior guard scored 10 of the team’s 23 points. Rhody trailed at the half, 28-23, marking the first time Fordham has led at the break all season.
“We weren’t playing at our own pace. We let them speed us up, we weren’t executing our sets.” Sheppard said about the first half difficulties on the offensive end.
Coach Cox’s crew turned it up in the second half in part to its dominance on the glass. URI out-rebounded Fordham, 47-29. In its last eight games, URI is now plus-102 in rebound margin.
Without Russell on the floor, URI fans got a look into the future and witnessed the varied talents of freshman Leggett. He made good on his first start in Russell’s absence as he scored in various ways, hit the boards and was a key piece in a smothering, all-around, team stout defensive effort.
“Did you see him? He was flying through the air, he was grabbing balls from bigs, he was diving on the floor,” Cox said of his energetic freshman. “We needed everything, every point, every rebound, every loose ball.”
Rhode Island heads back to Pennsylvania to face La Salle on Wednesday. When asked about Russell’s status for that game, Cox made note of hits star’s penchant for playing well in visits to his hometown. “Fatts in Philadelphia? You answer that one,” he said with a chuckle.