By Kevin Ryder
KINGSTON, RI—It is something that fans of the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball program have been waiting for since Lamar Odom’s wild three-pointer beat Temple in the finals of the 1999 A-10 Tournament.
It is something that has eluded head coach Jim Baron since he arrived to a mess of a basketball program that was Rhode Island earlier this decade.
It almost happened last year, when the Rams were in the top 25 for a blink of the eye before a late-season collapse, including finding every conceivable way to lose games over the final few minutes of the game, put the Rams in the NIT and a first-round exit.
It could happen this year, and last night’s thrilling two-point overtime win over a very tough Dayton squad was just what the Rams needed.
“It” is the NCAA Tournament. “It” is what separates the haves from the have-nots in the college basketball landscape. “It” is the difference between sellout crowds, national television exposure, and truly being a part of March Madness and ending up in the no-one-cares abyss of the NIT or, gasp, the College Basketball Invitational.
The Rams (21-8, 10-4 in the Atlantic 10) have not cashed in on their opportunities for a high-profile win this season. They have had plenty of chances, and each one seemed to end in a harsher way than the previous one.
Let’s take a quick look back.
Nov. 16 @ Duke
A game that just about everyone, including yours truly, thought the Rams had less than a 0 percent chance of winning. Yet there they were, riding the hot hand of Jimmy Baron to a second-half lead at Cameron Indoor with a legitimate chance to win. Of course, some questionable calls went against Rhody, and the Rams left with some national respect, but an 82-79 loss.
Nov. 29 vs. Villanova @ The Palestra
Now the final score will show that it wasn’t a close game. It was, for about the first 30 minutes. Then the Rams showed signs of fatigue, playing their fourth game of the week, and lost to the Wildcats 78-65.
Dec. 6 @ Providence
A tough loss for sure. The Rams were hurt by Baron being sick and could never build a solid lead over the Friars. In the end, an off-balance shot by Baron from the right wing went off the back rim, and the Rams lost 66-65.
Dec. 20 @ Oklahoma State
This was a game right up URI’s alley—up-and-down action, last team with the ball will win. They ran out to a double-digit lead over the Cowboys but couldn’t maintain it, and OSU hung on for a wild 86-82 victory.
There are four marquee games, at least against teams from marquee conferences, that the Rams let slip through their fingers. A win in one or two of those games, and URI is probably on the inside looking out of the NCAA Tournament picture.
In league play, the Rams have suffered a triple-overtime loss at St. Joe’s, a two-point setback to nationally-ranked Xavier at home and a three-point loss to Richmond. But since that loss to the Spiders, the Rams have been on fire, winning nine of their last 10 games, the lone setback a 68-62 loss at Temple.
That brings us to last night at the Ryan Center: an overtime win over a quality team, the one thing the Rams had lacked so far this season. A game-winning shot from the most unexpected source, sophomore point guard Marquis Jones, and big shots all night from Baron, Kahiem Seawright, Keith Cothran, and Delroy James.
It was a total team effort, the kind the Rams will need in their final two games of the season, at Duquesne and home against Massachusetts, before the A-10 Tournament in Atlantic City.
The Rams have experienced “it” for the first time in a long time—a quality win over a quality opponent. It was something needed if this team is going to make a serious run and a serious case for inclusion in the brackets on Selection Sunday.
Now URI wants to experience the ultimate “it,” a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time this decade and for the first time since Odom was an undergraduate student-athlete at the school. The key now will be to ride the momentum of the big win over Dayton and close out the season with wins over Duquesne and UMass and head into the conference tournament with a first-round bye and a legit shot at making the championship game.
If that happens, then the Rams might be dancing this season, might be a part of March Madness and experience the ultimate “it,” which would be a long time coming for this program.