Insider Breakdown: Dowtin and patient comeback lead URI Rams to A-10 final

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Dan Hurley and EC Matthews

Rhode Island overcame an 11 point second-half deficit to clip the Saint Joseph’s Hawks and advance to their second straight Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship game. Five Rams scored in double-figures, led by senior Andre Berry who tallied 18 in the winning effort. With the “W”, Dan Hurley’s club moves a step closer to claiming another Atlantic 10 trophy and will face the winner of (2) St. Bonaventure and (3) Davidson. Beyond the box score, here’s what what stood out in the semifinal win.

Incremental gains

Saint Joseph’s is – as Dan Hurley admitted – somewhat of a kryptonite team for this Rhode Island squad to compete against because of their style of play. The Hawks possess veteran guards who take care of the basketball and are excellent downhill drivers. Their forwards are skilled and can stretch the floor, allowing for an inversion where they spread you and can effectively clear the paint area for their guards because, defensively, your forwards can’t help off their stretch forwards. It means a lot of on-island defending versus seasoned, physical drivers. Additionally, once the Hawks generate a lead, they’re difficult to make runs against because they do not beat themselves with live-ball turnovers. The 10 turnovers Rhode Island forced is in this one is right at Joe’s average. Martelli’s team bends, it doesn’t break.

Couple these reasons with SJU’s solid play of late, and you’ve got a recipe for a tough comeback. It became incumbent for URI to singularly focus and chip away a possession at a time, which they were able to do with timely shot-making and a more energetic and bell-answering presence defensively and on the boards. I still wouldn’t send the film to the Naismith Hall of Fame, but it’s not about style points in March. It’s about grinding and earning it. And they did.

Mentor and motivator

With 18:51 left in the second half, Saint Joseph’s guard Shavar Newkirk converted a drive and the Hawks led 51-40. Hurley called timeout and, coming out of the timeout, E.C. Matthews was walking near the low block a bit lethargically. Hurley called him over to the sideline, whispered in his ear, and gave him a pat. Matthews would drain a critical three-pointer 30 seconds later to bring the spread back to 8 points… which began the Rams’ climb. For as demonstrative as Hurley can be at times, it’s the subtleties of coaching that move the needle. Here’s what he said to Matthews that functioned to level-set the senior moving forward:

Turn back the clock

Well, in my mind anyway. Senior guard Jarvis Garrett has been scuffling of late, scoreless in his last five games on 0-16 shooting from the floor. Associate head coach David Cox took to chat with Garrett at length on Friday night and Saturday morning to help the senior rediscover his footing. It paid off during Rhode Island’s comeback in a big way with Garrett confidently rising and nailing back-to-back threes around the 10 minute mark of the second half. The six point splurge would trim the deficit to three points and the rest is history. But, speaking of history, my mind transported to Garrett’s freshman year against GW in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tourney. With Patricio Garino and crew dictating the action late in the first half and Rhode Island on the ropes, Garrett similarly nailed back-to-back three to help URI close the gap to six, in a game they’d ultimately win.

Philly doing in Philly

When Saint Joseph’s looks back at this game, they’ll remember the 14 points in 18 minutes that freshman guard Fatts Russell put on them. A Philly native, Russell is a stone-cold scorer that (as we said yesterday) thrives for the big stage. Whether from behind the arc, off the bounce, or at the stripe – where his two late free throws positioned the Rams in the driver’s seat – Philly schools will long be regretting letting the generously-listed at 5-10 Russell get away. In fact, here’s what Russell’s AAU coach told ZagsBlog upon his commitment to Hurley in September of 2016.

“Daron is an ultimate competitor and his upside is tremendous,” Team Final coach Aaron Burt said. “He has an infectious personality that makes people flock to him, want to play with him and compete as hard as he does. He’s very coachable, is a quick learner and loves to compete.“He has unlimited range, is a big-time playmaker and is not afraid of the big moment. He will lead your backfield or backcourt. Any coach that gets him is gonna win a lot of games and have a very upset player on their hands. He will do whatever is asked of him to win and uplift a program.”

Obligatory Jeff Dowtin mention

He’s 13-18 from the field, 6-8 from deep, and has 10 rebounds, 14 assists and 3 turnovers in two games. His clutch play has spoken for itself and he’s the Most Outstanding Player of the A-10 Championship to this point. For those wondering if being left off an all-conference team motivated him to come to D.C. and perform a stone’s throw from where he grew up… You’ve got your answer.