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Experience helps Rhode Island overcome Oklahoma test, overtime

Pittsburgh, PA — When Rhode Island men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley was out recruiting at the Peach Jam, he saw Trae Young, but another guard ended up catching his eye and that player was six-foot, 165 pound Fatts Russell.

When the two had a chance to meet, Hurley offered a statement which proved to be a compliment that Russell inferred as a challenge.

“The only point guard I saw better than him at the Peach Jam last year was (Young), and he told me I was wrong about that and he was going to prove me wrong today, and he put on a show,” Hurley said.

Thursday, Russell was a trending topic worldwide on Twitter, but it was his play on the court which electrified the sold-out PPG Paints Arena crowd of 18,757.

“I just try to get in and give the team whatever they need,” Russell said. “We have a lot of great seniors on this team, so my role hasn’t been as big as I may have wanted it to be. I try to make an impact every time I get in the game for my teammates.”

Russell’s 15 points off the bench came with some timely shooting as Rhode Island held off Oklahoma 83-78 Thursday afternoon in an overtime NCAA Tournament First Round contest.

“Such an exciting match-up, a thrilling game,” said Hurley. “Obviously, we had our chance at the end of regulation, but we showed the character of these guys, the character of the program by the way we responded in overtime and made big free throws and put the game away. So it’s about surviving and advancing, and what an exciting game to be part of.”

Senior guard E.C. Matthews led Rhode Island with 16 points including a couple of key shots in the overtime period in which he used a crossover move to free himself for two key three-point shots.

“It’s almost like you’re saying to the basketball gods like, please take care of this guy,” said Hurley. “Everything he’s been through with the injuries, the heart that that kid has, and the relationship that he has with all of the coaches, players, for him to have that moment that he just deserves more than any college player in the country, you know? That’s heartwarming right there. It’s beyond even feeling good about winning. It’s just he deserved that.”

Young scored a game 28 shots on 9-of-18 shooting from the field. Now questions will be had as to whether if he has played his last game and will head to the NBA, something he stated would not be discussed until later in the week with family.

“I’m proud of my team the way we fought,” he said. We were down seven with about two minutes left, and the way we fought back and got back into the game and forced it into overtime was just effort, and I’m proud of my team to even getting to that point. We fought hard to the end, and that’s a good Rhode Island team we played today. They did a good job executing their stuff.”

Bjorn enjoying Rhody’s run

As he entered the media press conference area, Rhode Island Director of Athletics Thorr Bjorn entered accompanied by university president David Dooley. The former could not remove the smile from his face and bumped fists with several familiar faces.

Rhode Island is advancing to the second round in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many years, with Hurley the lone Rams coach to accomplish this feat.

“I am having a lot more fun this year than last year,” Bjorn said. “Wins and losses, I was living and dying by every one of them. This year I had some really good friends that told me that I had to take some time and enjoy this. I’ve been trying to enjoy every one of them. This team is doing so many special things, most importantly record breaking wins and with Coach Hurley who I just admire and respect.”

This was a chance which began the momentum the ball tipped off during the team’s Oct. 28 season opener against Buffalo.

In terms of when this shift happened for Bjorn, he credits a friend who just so happens to be a fellow athletic director in Saint Louis’s Chris May.

“They were having A-10 meetings in the fall and Chris is really the one who pulled me aside,” said Bjorn. “We spent a lot of time together walking around Washington, D.C.  and he told me ‘you guys are going to be good, enjoy it’. I text him a lot after a lot of these games and I tell him I am enjoying it. He can tell when I get a little stressed and he’ll text me to remember what he told me. That’s why this league is so great, there is so much camaraderie. The other part is that my kids and wife love coming to these games and are so supportive, which makes it a lot of fun.”

As an athletic director, the position is a difficult and demanding one, but Bjorn found individuals who he can trust and can hold each other accountable.

When Bjorn checked into the team’s hotel, he ran into director of player development T.J. Buchanan and the exchange was quick, in fact only one thing needed to be said.

“You were a big part of this,” Bjorn said to the 2011-15 Rams alum.

Bjorn is extremely appreciative to everyone who has helped Rhode Island men’s basketball grow into the program it currently is. Something which holds true with a senior class which all shared the pre-tournament press conference podium.

“It’s been an incredible ride which started when we hired Dan and a couple of challenges he faced right away that we weren’t expecting,” said Bjorn. “The photo last year of me hugging Cyril (Langevine) was a photo of relief and it was really special. It is amazing to see how far we’ve come and there are so many people behind it whether it’s campus leaders, donors helping us to stay competitive at the top of the league budgetarily and then what Dan has done staying true to his players and players transferring and sticking around wanting to be part of this. It’s what makes it feel really special.”

Three things:

1. Rhode Island sophomore forward Cyril Langevine entered Thursday afternoon a 53.5% free throw shooter yet down the stretch in overtime he found himself at the line twice.

His first free throw swirled around the rim before dropping through the net. The make seemed to comfort him as he made the other three free throws which helped secure the win.

“I knew once I hit the free throws, the four three throws, that would seal the game,” he said. “So I went to the line with confidence and made the four free throws.”

2. While Oklahoma may have one of the best players in college basketball, Rhode Island’s steadiness helped win this game.

Young had seven assists for Oklahoma but it was undone a little bit by his six turnovers.

Rhode Island made its fair share of mistakes as well including a lack of shots not falling when Young picked up his second foul in the first half and not being aggressive when he came back in, not boxing out 50-50 balls for an early second half stretch and blowing a fairly routine, two-on-one but in the same vein once those mistakes were over they moved on.

The Rams seniors remained steady and avoided the big mistake while Oklahoma’s support players were largely kept in check.

“We’re old, old as hell,” E.C. Matthews said. “That means we’re wise. We played in a lot of games, been in a lot of tough games. We was very resilient. Coach Hurley was calm, that meant we were calm. We had to make shots. Like I said, we made big shots.

3. While Rhode Island certainly made the above mistakes, it was a play which appeared to be a big mistake which turned the game in its favor. Langevine kicked out from the paint to Jared Terrell who put up a shot beside the second “s” in the March Madness center-court logo.

Hurley called this the turning point and it was after this that several of Russell’s looks opened up.

Duke advances to second round

Duke had a rather routine 89-67 win over Iona in NCAA Tournament first round play, aided by some wide-spread scoring which was led by freshman forward Marvin Bagley III’s 22 point, seven rebound performance.

“I’m happy with my team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You bring a young team in here, and I thought our guys really handled their first NCAA game very well against a team that has a championship pedigree. You know, Tim’s (Cluess) program is one of the best in the northeast and the Iona name in basketball is huge.”

With such a young team that youth which Krzyzewski mentioned was no problem as 12 players saw the floor.

“I thought they came out aggressive and confident,” Duke senior guard Grayson Allen said. “I don’t think we were nervous or overanxious because of the tournament atmosphere, I thought. We came out very well. We scored the ball to start the game and played hard and had to make an adjustment on defense because of Iona’s defense. This was a game, if we didn’t come out like that and didn’t come out hard, we could have been down seven, eight points from the get-go because of how they scored the ball.”

Iona shot 55.2% from the field in the first half, before it was held to a 32.3% clip.

“They are one heck of a basketball team,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “We tried to throw a lot of things at them and they responded in a different way. And I’m proud of our guys’ effort. In a game like today we have to shoot lights out and apparently we didn’t. All the credit goes to Duke. I’m really proud of my guys. They fought hard all year, and I’m really proud of them for getting this opportunity.

Villanova, Alabama win evening contests

16th seeded Radford buried its first shot, a three and both its fans and coaches were spirited throughout the contest even as the game fell well out of reach.

“I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” Radford coach Mike Jones joked. “I always wanted to do that, man. I always wanted to do that.”

Villanova’s 87-61 win over Radford Thursday night certainly was no laughing matter and was rather business like.

“We’re getting better every time we get to play,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “You play different teams, different styles. And that’s what you have to be able to adjust to. We’ll get a totally different style on Saturday, and we’re going to have to be ready.”

Following Alabama’s 86-83 win over Virginia Tech, the two coaches barely had much if any voice left, something which is normal for both men but especially held true given the way this game went.

What both men do share is a respect and friendship after Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams has continuously supported his counterpart and Thursday night opponent Avery Johnson as the latter transitioned to the college game.

“I’m really proud of our team,” Johnson said. “This is a new season for us. Obviously, we’re glad, happy, that we’re advancing. We came here to advance. We didn’t come here to just show up.”

This game had many ties and lead changes but the final turn in this game came with 48 seconds left and Justin Robinson was called for a charge. Robinson turned a corner at an unconventional angle and Alabama freshman Collin Sexton just barely beat him to the spot, good enough for the whistle.

Williams took several papers and threw them on the court earning a technical foul protesting the original charging foul.

“I shouldn’t have had the towel in my hand, I think that made it look worse,” he said. “I thought it was a block. John Cal, who I’ve known forever was at the game. He told me later that it was the charge. So, he said it was the right call.”

Up next

Villanova opens against Alabama in a contest set to tip off at 12:10.

“Outstanding team, Jay Wright’s done an incredible job,” Johnson said. “They’ve got problems (for us) at every position. This will be a long night. I normally only average two hours of sleep. I’ll sleep maybe 30 minutes and just have a bunch of coffee, but it’s a good problem to have.”

Rhode Island will face Duke Saturday at 2:40.

Krzyzewski certainly has an understanding for Hurley since he inducted Bob Hurley into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

“Their family epitomizes the highest level of love for the game,” he said. “The father, you’re talking (about) one of the great coaches. It doesn’t matter what level. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame, and his two sons have learned a lot, learned a lot. Danny’s team, he hasn’t built a team, he’s built a program there. You know, that’s the difference. That’s what you want to do is build a program that develops teams year after year, and he’s done that at Rhode Island.”

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