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Insider Breakdown: URI Rams subdue VCU, advance to Atlantic 10 Semifinals

Jeff Dowtin

Rhode Island (24-6) had answer-after-answer down the stretch in beating back a stubborn VCU team 76-67 in a quarterfinal Atlantic 10 matchup. Fueled by a masterful performance from sophomore point guard Jeff Dowtin (18 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists), the Rams move on to face the winner of the George Mason (5)/Saint Joseph’s(4) game. Here’s a beyond the box score look inside the Rams’ win.

Late poise

The difference between surviving and advancing in one-and-done formats is grace under pressure (I think Hemingway said that…). Rhode Island’s possessed it most of the year, save for a late blip at Davidson — and returned to form in this one. VCU did not fold here; they were beaten. Rhode Island held their screens, met the pass, shared the ball and read and reacted confidently to execute when needed. The Kingston Rams also buttoned it up from the line just in time, converting their final eight tries.

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Dead ball plays

There’s a critical importance to winning the ledger on conversions off of dead-ball situations. I’ve discussed it before but it bears mentioning again today. Late in the first half, immediately after VCU took a 30-28 lead and, seemingly, momentum, Dan Hurley called URI’s second timeout. Jared Terrell (1-8 from the floor at the time) was searching for his offensive game, and the Hurley designed a play where Terrell shook free off a stagger screen to immediately extinguish VCU momentum and knock down an individual springboard three-pointer in the process. Every play counts. The late ones and the early ones. And that play paid dividends on the scoreboard and psychologically. The Rams would design and execute two other gems down the stretch, including a screen-the-screener action that allowed Stanford Robinson to slip to the tin for an important late hoop. Game results are the aggregate of incremental executions throughout, and for all the “bow-and-arrow” daggers that everyone loves, these ones are equally as pretty.

Zone offense

 No surprise, but Rhode Island saw a 2-3 zone thrown their way again in this one. With 7:48 left in the first half, VCU went to it almost exclusively, with great success as Rhode Island endured a substantial drought. Too often, URI was content to probe on the outside and settle for perimeter pulls, rather than attacking and cracking from within. The Kingston Rams were more patient, yet purposeful in attacking the zone (which VCU Coach Mike Rhoades continued to mix in) in the second stanza. There was high post action from Jared Terrell and others, the Rams got in the gaps and Hurley and staff pressed the right accompanying personnel buttons to help the Rams solve it.

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Final thought, should the Rams play Saint Joseph’s (and game two is tracking that way) don’t discount how facing a long zone from VCU today and adjusting effectively to it, can aid their effort against the Hawks tomorrow.

Attacking Tillman

VCU senior forward Justin Tillman is a 1st team all-conference performer for a reason, and showed it in this matchup. He should’ve paid taxes he was at the line so much and the cumulative foul tally toll was beginning to take effect on Ram forwards. Beyond limiting the damage Tillman could do against them offensively, Rhode Island’s relentless nature in taking the action to Tillman helped seed him with his 4th foul at roughly the 10 minute mark. That proved to be a tourniquet to lengthen – in all likelihood – the stay of URI’s big men on the floor. It also resulted in Rhoades being unable to park Tillman and his imposing shot-altering presence in that zone for 5-6 minutes of game action. While an inspired VCU team still played Rhode Island to a push on the scoreboard during Tillman’s absence, rest assured it had a profound impact on the ultimate result.

Living for the stage

There’s plenty of basketball to be played in 2017-18 for these Rams, but the performances of both Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell engender confidence – despite the loss of five seniors – moving forward. I’m a believer that innately, you either have a penchant and a fire to compete in high leverage situations… or you don’t. Both of these underclassmen do. The ability of both Dowtin (numbers above) and Russell (11pts, 3-6 3pt) to embrace, take and make big shots is impressive. But perhaps more impressive is the ability of each to shake off mistakes and compartmentalize the game. Neither one lets a single error compound mentally to knock him off his axis. Each are confident, short-memory players who want the ball, want the assignment, want the pressure. They’re winners.