Insider Breakdown: URI Rams’ Energy Elevation in Win Over VCU

Jermaine Harris (Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard)

Rhode Island (11-7, 4-2) stitched together its most active and energized 20 minutes of basketball in the second half of Wednesday night’s home tilt against VCU, emerging with an important conference win 71-65.

The victory firmly places Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 mix with one-third of the conference season in the books. Here are some takeaways beyond the box score as to why the northernmost Rams emerged with a key triumph.

Not too big. While David Cox’s team enjoyed the home court advantage, games like this one offer a rigorous litmus test of the ability of younger players, transfers, and those recently indoctrinated to conference play to respond in the moment. It’s not uncommon to see freshmen who previously took a step forward take two steps back given the level of intensity among foes who know one another.

There was no such regression against VCU for Rhode Island’s big three freshmen: Tyrese Martin, Dana Tate and Jermaine Harris.

Tyrese Martin (Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard)

In fact, all played pivotal roles in helping the Rams secure the come-from-behind win.

Martin was his typical athletic, opportunistic, rim-finishing self en route to 12 points, seven boards, and two steals.

Tate chipped in six points, four rebounds and two assists — and among the six points was a pivotal bucket midway through the second half that helped Rhode Island pad its lead.

Harris (eight points, seven rebounds, two assists) will be most remembered for his game-icing foul line jumper as the shot clock was about to expire with 33 seconds remaining…

But for me it was his defensive effort and motor throughout the game that resonated. His “energy baseline” was considerably higher than in past games as he continues to learn to appreciate the physical and mental output required on every play at this level. He made several “winning plays” from keeping balls alive on the glass, to hedging with purpose, and using his length in the passing lanes, which won’t show up in the box score but will sure show up in the film.

Above all, the trio of freshmen showed that they could play and persevere in a man’s game with ratcheted conference intensity. That bodes well for Rhode Island moving forward.

Tip of the cap.

Against George Mason, Fatts Russell shot 0-7 from three-point range. That was four games ago.

Since that game – and through these three subsequent wins – he’s shot five deep balls combined — making three. Inside the arc, the 5-10 sophomore guard has gone 18-37 (48.6%) from 2-point range and 18-22 (81%) from the free-throw line over that span; committed to scoring from 15′ and in.

Sure, there have been turnovers as his growth continues. But his fire, his willingness to accept coaching and path-setting criticism from the staff, and the effective, on-the-fly shift of his offensive approach are all commendable.

Even as teams adjust to Russell’s restraint from the perimeter, the guard still possesses ample quickness to find seams and turn corners, even on defenders who give him a step.

That god-given ability combined with taking just one squared up three on occasion draws defenders to him when he lays his eyes on the rim. That’s all he needs to take the edge on whichever foot a defender leads with on a closeout.

From there, he’s downhill making things happen for himself and his teammates as he did in this one, scoring 19 points and grabbing six rebounds. In addition to his production, his confidence is on the rise.

Dana Tate (Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard)

Getting offensive.

To flip a four-point halftime deficit into a six point ultimate advantage – that’s a 10-point swing for you STEM buffs like me – Rhode Island needed to excel in multiple facets of the game.

Sure, the Rams shot 53% in the second half after mustering just 27.6% shooting in the first. But how?

For starters, Rhode Island attempted 32 shots in the second half, making 17. These extra possessions were fueled by Rhode Island better care-taking of the ball (particularly in the middle swath of the game where they gained separation), forcing VCU into 19 turnovers on the night and getting downright offensive on the offensive glass, where URI grabbed 14 for the game and eight in half two.

Five Rams, led by Jermaine Harris’ three, collected two or more offensive rebounds in the game. That’s indicative of swarming effort.

The manifestation of this aggressor mentality also led to 20 second half free-throw attempts after attempting just six freebies in the first session. That’s how a team helps neutralize an opponent like VCU that packs a stingy defense of its own.

Nitpick.

Gotta have one, right?

VCU offered URI its first look at a good ole fashioned high-precision counterattack off of Rhode Island made buckets. On no less than four or five occasions, as URI admired its offensive artistry on the make, VCU streaked up the floor unimpeded for equalizing buckets. Rhody simply didn’t mark properly and communicate in retreat after its own converted scores. Once bitten as they say…

Look for the coaching staff to address this fault-line in an otherwise solid effort.

Flying at them.

Rhode Island’s half court defense has been stout all year long, save for a game or two. But against VCU, Rhode Island was kinetic, flying at shooters and forcing VCU offensive threats to make quicker decisions with less real estate and comfort to operate.

Rotations weren’t always perfect, but the Rams exhibited an intent and focus to defend with urgency particularly in the second half. Mirror that moving forward and the league could be looking at a dark horse.

“The David Cox Coach’s Show” is on YurView live Monday, January 28 at 6PM EST, Cox Channels 4 and 1004 in Rhode Island, and can be viewed streamed live on YurView.com.