Pittsburgh, PA –Rhode Island’s potential NCAA berth has been there for the taking and Saturday it was Davidson which stood in the way.
Regardless of whether or not the 84-60 victory in the Atlantic 10 semifinals over Davidson was enough to punch an NCAA Tournament bid remains to be seen but the aggressiveness in the win came early and often.
“I think we just now are hitting our ceiling,” Rhode Island’s E.C. Matthews said. “We believe we’re the best team in the conference, and every game, we’re just going out there trusting each other.”
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Davidson gave everything it had and led for 24 seconds, but were undone by Rhode Island’s three point shooting and a 12-0 run as the Rams pulled away towards the middle of the second half.
“They knocked us to the mat very early,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “They played a terrific basketball game. Even though we got knocked to the mat, our guys didn’t stay down. We got knocked to the ropes. We didn’t stay on the ropes. We kept coming back and kept fighting and fighting. I will treasure a lot of memories from this particular year, and one of the most poignant will be the way this team kept fighting back no matter how much they have been hit and no matter how many times they got knocked down.”
Rhode Island had a 46-34 halftime lead and was 9-12 on its 3-point shots in the opening 20 minutes.
“You see the first one go down, and that’s all we really need,” said Matthews. “You know, we work on our shot a lot in the off-season, and Coach gives us confidence to shoot good threes. So once we see one going down, that gives us more motivation to make more.”
A big reason for this was the play of freshman guard Jeff Dowtin who had six assists and no turnovers in 26 minutes. Several of his passes set up open looks for teammates.
“That’s a guy coming from a high-level high school program, coming from a great family, a top-level student,” Hurley said. “He has the character and the composure and the nerves, to play in games like this, and deliver as a freshman point guard, playing on I guess a bubble team in the semifinals of a conference tournament here with a chance to play for a ring tomorrow. He’s been doing that for us since Jarvis (Garrett) went down. That guy is a baller and he’s just going to get better.”
For Davidson this defeat may have been Jack Gibbs’s last game in a collegiate uniform. Gibbs scored 17 points in the defeat to move into third on the programs all-time scoring list, but was held to 4-12 shooting and 0-3 from three point range.
Gibbs was subbed out late in the game and hugged each of his teammates, coaches and support staff. He then gave a small round of applause to the Davidson fans in attendance, another token of appreciation.
“The last four years here have been the best part of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” he said. “The fans that came today, the fans back home, the school, just the community as a whole, is something that’s real special, and you don’t find it in a lot of places in this country. I’m proud of the decision I made to come here, and I know that I may not ever wear Davidson on my chest again, but it will be in my heart forever.”
This title game is something relatively unfamiliar to Rhode Island as it has advanced there five times now, winning only in 1999. Still when Rhode Island’s core group came to campus Hurley made a promise.
“We said to our guys yesterday before the tournament started, the one thing we did say, when we recruited you, E.C. and Hassan (Martin) in particular, Kuran (Iverson), we never promised them we would win the Atlantic 10,” he said. “We never promised them we would play in the NCAA Tournament. What we told them was we would give them a great chance to do those things. You know, when they wake up tomorrow, they are going to have a great chance.”
Rhode Island will take on VCU in the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship title game at 12:30 p.m. on CBS. VCU defeated Richmond 87-77 in overtime in the other semifinal game.