Eighth-seeded Rhode Island shocked top seed VCU, 75-70, to advance to at least the Atlantic 10 semifinals for the third straight season. It was also the third straight year Rhode Island has knocked VCU out of the conference’s signature event. Four Rams scored in double-figures, led by Jeff Dowtin who poured in 22 points — including a decisive double-pump three pointer from the wing as the shot clock neared expiration with 2:13 to play.
With the win, Rhode Island will take on the winner of the 4/5 match up featuring St. Bonaventure and George Mason being played as this goes to publication. With VCU looking poised for an at-large bid irrespective of the loss, the Atlantic 10 will steal another bid via its auto-qualifier champion.
Let’s peel back the curtain and examine story lines of this upset, beginning with the play of URI’s freshmen.
Coming of age.
Three of Rhode Island’s four-man freshmen class made key contributions to the win, vital given that Cyril Langevine (7 points, 9 rebounds, 4 turnovers) and Fatts Russell (6 points, 5 turnovers) were neutralized.
Tyrese Martin was immense over the final 12 minutes of the first half, offering length and activity on defense and important contributions offensively during a time where two of the Big 3 were struggling. He scored 11 in the half (13 for the game) and was able to slither through traffic in transition for a pair of fast break buckets needed as URI was battling from three or four possessions down. Martin chipped in five rebounds as well.
In the second half it was Dana Tate. In 24 hours, he went from moving gingerly to playing through pain explosively. He was incredibly active on the offensive glass, including a momentum-building put back dunk, and finished with 12 points and 6 boards in 21 minutes of action.
Omar Silverio’s stat line won’t scream out to anyone (two points, two rebounds), but don’t be fooled. He played eight important second half minutes with Russell in foul trouble where he was able to help advance the ball and withstand the waves of VCU pressure. His presence and scout-team-label as a shooter also allowed Rhode Island to tuck him in the corner and isolate Jeff Dowtin and others on his side for dribble-penetration opportunities as defenders were loathe to help off Silverio. In a championship setting, it’s little items that don’t always show in a box score which accumulate to help teams advance. Silverio’s play was just that.
Surviving the waves.
For Rhode Island to spring the upset, the Rams needed to bend but not break under the VCU pressure. VCU is incredibly aggressive both in terms of full court pickup and the way they “blitz” ball screens in the half court. Limiting turnovers leading to live-ball run-outs simply has to be a given against VCU — or they will throttle you. In this one, URI finished the turnover margin battle at +1, coughing it up just 12 times on the afternoon while flipping over VCU 13 times. Their collective patience in the half court and commitment to holding the ball an extra second to ensure they had both the needed real estate and teammate eye contact was key throughout. Yes, they committed a few inopportune turnovers, but on the whole their ability to stay south of 15 on the day was a significant reason for the victory.
VCU’s Marcus Santos-Silva was enormous, scoring 26 points and grabbing 22 rebounds. On the other side of the coin, Cyril Langevine’s tally was off as he struggled against the physicality, length, and swarming nature of Santos-Silva and VCU’s interior defenders. But despite the box score inequity and pounding that Langevine took all game, he played 39 minutes, stayed out of foul trouble (2) and stayed on the floor to collect a couple of key boards late. Like a starting pitcher in baseball, you’re not always going to have everything working for you, but you must battle. Throughout the season when the shoulders of others have slumped at times, Langevine’s never have. The fella puts his nose down and stays at it. He’ll live to play another day now, on the big stage.
Guarding the line.
The Southern Rams – like their Northern counterparts – aren’t known for knock-down shooting. During the regular season VCU finished 13th in the league at 30.6%. But in the first half Mike Rhoades’ team was hot as Rhode Island was trying to weather a 6-11 barrage. VCU would finish the half 6-14 and, candidly, if they kept making them, Rhode Island was not going to emerge victorious.
But to make them you have to take them. VCU, without leading scorer Marcus Evans who suffered a hyper-extended knee 11 minutes in and would not return, didn’t have the same spacing without their shooting guard. And the second half was a different story, as Rhode Island limited VCU to just six attempts total, including three in the final minute. For 19 minutes then, VCU was only able to pull the trigger on three clean looks from deep. URI’s ability to carry through on its adjustment to fight over the top, fly at VCU shooters, and run them off the three point line in the second half was an essential development.
URI freshman Dana Tate, when back-peddling down the court after a dead ball with 6:07 left said “I wanna be right here [playing for an A-10 Championship in Brooklyn]. We ain’t going anywhere.”
URI will play in the A-10 semifinals vs. St. Bonaventure tomorrow at 1PM on CBSSN.