If you are a college basketball fan in Rhode Island, it doesn’t get much better than the thrills URI provided its long-suffering fans on Sunday. The fourth-seeded Rams stymied a late rally by second-seeded Virginia Commonwealth and won the Atlantic-10 Championship, 70-63, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
As balloons descended from the rafters, Rhody players pulled championship T-shirts over their uniforms, hugged each other and hugged the impressive championship trophy. The real prize, though, was the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re going dancing,” coach Dan Hurley exclaimed as several of his players mugged for the CBS camera.
The last time the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team went dancing was 18 long seasons ago, when Lamar Odom’s buzzer beater defeated Temple in the 1999 A-10 final. That was URI’s only title until Sunday.
Seeded 11th in the Midwest Region, URI will play sixth-seeded Creighton in Sacramento on Friday. If they win, the Rams will play No. 3 Oregon (29-5) or No. 14 Iona (22-12) in the second round on Sunday.
The Rams earned this post-season trip thanks to a strong finish to the regular season and a three-game blitz in the A-10 tournament. Rhody eliminated St. Bonaventure in the quarterfinals, blew out Davidson in the semifinals and held off VCU in the final. This crew took care of business and removed its fate from the hands of the selection committee.
Once again URI started fast and built a 17-point lead with 8:59 to go in the first half. Once again defense saved the day. URI held VCU to 31 percent shooting and blocked seven shots. Jared Terrell’s strip steal with 26 seconds left in a 68-63 game hurt VCU, and a pair of E.C. Matthews free throws with 20 seconds to play sealed the deal for Rhode Island’s eighth straight victory and its 12th in its last 14 games.
To watch the Rams celebrate after so many years of crushing disappointment, to see Hurley hug his parents, Hall of Fame high-school coach Bob Hurley and his wife Chris, was a treat, one that should have made even the staunchest Providence College fan smile.
And how about those Friars? They’re going to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season, a first in the long history of their tradition-rich program. Sure, PC (20-12) is one of the last four teams in and must play Southern Cal (24-9) in a “play-in game” Wednesday night in Dayton – that’s what an uninspiring loss to Creighton in the Big East quarterfinals will do -- but the Friars are in. Coach Ed Cooley and his unheralded team are dancing again! Who would have expected that last November, when they started the season without NBA draftees Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil? When they started having been picked ninth by the Big East coaches and then finished third? Nobody, that’s who.
If the Friars win, they’re off to Tulsa to play sixth-seeded SMU (29-4) in the first round of the East Regional.
So, as we sit in the Capital of New England College Basketball – Vermont is the only other New England team in the tournament – and hunker down for the next Snowmageddon on Tuesday, let us savor the thrill of URI and PC dancing in the NCAA together for the first time in 20 years. Around here, it doesn’t happen every spring.