They could have won. They could have beaten third-seeded Oregon and earned a trip to the Sweet 16. Victory was so close they could certainly see it, feel it, taste it.
But in the end, victory Sunday night was not to be for the University of Rhode Island Rams. Oregon was a three-point basket better than URI and left Sacramento with a 75-72 triumph in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks (31-5) moved on while the Rams (25-10) came home to reflect on their best season in 18 years.
And what a season it was in Kingston. An Atlantic-10 championship, only the second in school history. A berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. A torrid finish with nine consecutive victories and 13 wins in their last 15 games before meeting Oregon. A streak of nine victories in a row away from the Ryan Center. Having plunged into the basketball abyss with their stunning home loss to Fordham in mid-February, URI rebounded and was unbeatable until Sunday.
Rhody almost kept the streak going. The Rams rallied from a 28-20 deficit with a 24-10 run and led 46-38 at the half. They nudged their lead to 11 points with 13:39 remaining, but Oregon responded with a 23-10 spurt for a 68-66 lead. URI answered with a Jared Terrell jump shot, a defensive stop and a Stanford Robinson tip-in for a 72-68 lead with 2:11 to play. An Oregon free throw and a Tyler Dorsey three-pointer with 1:44 to go tied the score. Dorsey, Oregon’s star sophomore, broke the tie with another three-pointer with 38 seconds left. Rhody had two shots to tie, but Robinson and E.C. Matthews missed their three-point attempts.
Dorsey led all scorers with 27 points, 17 in the second half. Jordan Bell, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, grabbed a dozen rebounds, two off the offensive glass that set up Dorsey’s game-tying trey.
The Rams have every reason to be proud of this season and a lot to look forward to in 2018. First, a standing ovation, please, for Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, the senior stalwarts leaving the program. Martin is Rhody’s all-time shot blocker and the first player in Atlantic-10 history to lead the conference in blocked shots four consecutive years. Iverson was a force on URI’s front line and started every game.
Leading the returning Rams is E.C. Matthews, who will be a fifth-year senior. Fully recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him for the 2016 season, he improved as the 2017 campaign unfolded and by the end was his old scoring self. Fellow guards Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin, Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson and Christion Thompson should be back. Cyril Langevine could be ready for a starting role up front. Backup forward Nicola Akele should also return.
So congratulations, Rhody, on a fine season. We can’t wait for the start of practice in October.