KINGSTON — If you use UMass as a bellwether, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team has come a long way since late January.
A seven-point loss at Amherst marked the beginning of a stretch where the Rams lost seven of eight games, but the Rams rebounded by winning their next four.
Fitting then that they would cap off their regular season win streak with a little revenge. Rhody dismantled a Minuteman squad looking to wrap up a dreadful season, 94-75 on Saturday. The win came on Senior Night, and against the odds, both of URI’s seldom-used upperclassmen made an impact.
“Biggest celebration is, we wanted to honor these two seniors,” URI coach David Cox said. “Will [Leviton] and Ryan [Preston], send them out the right way. We wanted to play like them, with tremendous energy, effort and selflessness. That’s who these two gentlemen are. We went about that in the right way today.”
Ryan Preston had only played 146 minutes all season coming into Saturday’s game, and even earned a one-game suspension for publicly complaining about his lack of playing time.
“That was a minor setback,” Cox said of the suspension. “I think he handled it the right way. He had a very mature response. He’s learned. Everyone falls at times. It’s how you handle it.”
With that dust-up in the rearview mirror, Preston has the opportunity to make a difference going forward for the Rams. He played an energetic 29 minutes against the Minutemen, scoring 12 points. Both those numbers mark new career highs.
“His energy on the floor is contagious,” Cox said. “It’s the perfect time for him to be coming on like this. He’s probably the fastest guy on the team. The past two games, he’s truly helped us win.”
Preston had one goal in mind.
“I just wanted to come out with the win,” Preston said. “Execute plays the right way, be the energy guy that I am. Be the person I am every day I am in practice, replicate it in a game.
“At the end of the day, I’m doing this for the team.”
Leviton plays even less than Preston, but is still an integral part of the team. From team manager, to walk-on, to full scholarship player, Leviton has had quite the journey in Keaney Blue.
A "we want Will" chant broke out with the Rams up 20-plus and five minutes to play in the unquestioned blowout. He wouldn’t get into the game until a few minutes later, but he hit a runner in the lane and was carried off the court by his teammates after the final buzzer.
“It was a great feeling,” he said. “It made me feel appreciated. I don’t really look to be appreciated, but to hear that from the faithful fans we have, it was such a great feeling. I really think because of them doing that, [that’s why I scored].”
Absurd efficiency and balance carried the day for the Rams. Their team shooting percentage of 68.4 will go down as the second-best individual game by any Rhody team.
Fatts Russell was a big part of that historic number, a game after working his way into the record books by scoring 41 points. He scored 27 on Saturday, but he was 10-of-15 from the floor, and had five assists compared against a single turnover.
“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily easy, but my confidence is really high right now,” Russell said. “Coach stayed with me.”
As a team, URI hit 21 of its first 24 field goal attempts. The 54 first-half points were the most they’ve scored in a 20-minute period since last year’s win over Seton Hall.
UMass genuinely looked confused at times as to which color jerseys to throw the ball to. Fourteen of their 17 turnovers came in the first half, leading to a staggering 22-0 advantage on transition points.
“Our defensive intensity helps,” Cox said. “When you can see the ball go in the basket on transition layups, that helps. We had 19 assists today, so we’re trusting [each other] and sharing the basketball.
“I’m just happy to not be fielding the questions anymore on if we should allow our guys to shoot the ball.”
Cyril Langevine was also part of the shot-making parade, connecting on 10-of-11 field goals. He had a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds, but still narrowly missed out on becoming the second player in program history to average a double-double for a complete season. Kenny Green remains the only Ram to manage that feat, and Langevine went right over to the former great after the game.
“Will stole my rebound at the end,” Langevine joked. “Kenny is like an uncle to me. We talk about it a lot, what he did. That’s history. I’m trying to get back to that. I fell short by a couple rebounds. Him talking to me motivates me to go out there and get the rebounds.”
With four straight wins in their back pocket, the Rams are hopeful they can keep the momentum rolling all the way to Brooklyn. They play in the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament Thursday, against No. 9 La Salle. To say they’re a confident bunch right now would be an understatement.
“We hot,” Langevine barked out at the end of Saturday’s press conference. “We just have to stay focused and take care of business out there.”
“We have to win the A-10 championship again,” Preston said.
“Rhode Island is about championships,” Russell added. “That’s what we’re gonna do.”
If the Rams win on Thursday, they would face No. 1 VCU on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals.