BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Jeff Dowtin saw the shot clock in single digits and went hard to his left. With just enough space between him and the defender, he jumped, double-clutched and fired up a prayer.
A team that has made a habit of seizing March moments had grabbed another.
Dowtin’s shot went in, the lead grew, and the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team went on to shock top-seeded VCU 75-70 in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals Friday at Barclays Center.
“That win right there was a testament to the strength and the culture of this basketball program,” coach David Cox said. “Our guys have gone through a lot of adversity this year. They have shown a tremendous amount of resiliency. They have continued to play hard and they have continued to play together, and now we are reaping some of those benefits.”
The eighth-seeded Rams (18-14) will ride a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s semifinals where they will face St. Bonaventure at 1 p.m. The Bonnies beat George Mason, 68-57, on Friday.
URI is the hottest team in the bracket, having just knocked out the only team on a better streak. VCU (25-7) had won 12 in a row, storming to the regular-season A-10 title and likely sewing up an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. A second A-10 team will now be tourney bound, and URI is in position to be it.
“Our confidence is tremendously high,” Dowtin said. “We think we can take just about anybody now in this tournament.”
URI was the last team to beat VCU before its streak, winning 71-65 in Kingston Jan. 23. While the Richmond-based Rams rolled from there, their Kingston counterparts stumbled, and their five-game February losing streak included a 76-42 demolition at the hands of the same VCU squad.
The winning streak that followed showcased a different brand of basketball, and the contrast was on full display in the rematch.
“You've got to understand, the last time we played them, they literally wiped the floor with us, and that was hard to take, hard to swallow,” Cox said. “And what it did . . . it was almost necessary. It put us at the bottom and we had to come together or separate, and what we did is we came together. We had meetings. We had some very tough practices, and the guys responded very well.”
Under the surface of it all was URI’s championship pedigree and its March experience. With faith and confidence restored, that too was front and center in Friday’s game. Rhody fell behind early, but never let VCU pull away. It found cracks in the stingy VCU defense in the second half, shooting 46 percent and making three of four 3-pointers. It answered runs.
And when the game got tight, it made crucial plays.
URI had committed turnovers on two consecutive possessions and a lead that had been eight was down to three when Dowtin struck. His miraculous 3-pointer pushed the lead to six and had URI believing even more fully in its destiny for the day.
“I had to get one up,” Dowtin said. “That’s just 8:30 work with me and coach [Kevin] Sutton, working on my game and working on tough shots. The best players in college basketball, they come out in March. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to win for my guys.”
VCU moved back within three points at the 1:14 mark and Dowtin missed a free throw, but URI’s defense forced VCU into two contested looks at pulling even. De’Riante Jenkins tried to draw a foul on a 3-point attempt that fell well short. Off the rebound, Mike’L Simms missed a 3 from the wing. URI grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Christion Thompson made two free throws to seal the victory.
“I know Jeff had a big shot, but I just thought that our guys kept fighting,” Cox said. “In all honesty, I was paying attention to the score as a coach, but I really wasn't paying that much attention to the score. I was paying attention to how hard our guys were playing and how positive they stayed with one another and how well they were communicating. Again, that's the fabric of a strong — of a championship culture.”
VCU had bumped a three-point halftime lead to six early in the second half, but URI began to exert control soon after. Dana Tate dished to Tyrese Martin for a layup then scored five straight points himself to give URI a 46-45 lead, its first since the opening minutes. VCU made only two shots from the field over the next nine minutes and URI suddenly found its way.
Buckets by Dowtin, Cyril Langevine and Thompson made it a three-point lead. After VCU moved back within a point, URI scored four in a row, highlighted by a putback dunk from Tate that brought the URI cheering section to its feet.
VCU came back to take a 62-61 lead that lasted just 27 seconds before a 9-0 burst by URI. Tate followed a Dowtin miss, Thompson was fouled shooting a 3 and made all three free throws, Dowtin drilled a baseline jumper and Langevine scored on a putback. VCU followed with five straight points, but Dowtin’s desperation 3-pointer provided the next points and sent URI on its way.
“We might not have necessarily championship talent or championship depth,” Cox said. “I'm certainly not a seasoned, veteran, championship-caliber coach, but that culture is so strong and that's what you saw today.”
Rhode Island trailed by eight on two occasions in the opening half. The first such deficit almost grew to 10 when Marcus Evans nabbed a steal and went in for a layup. He was fouled going up for the shot and stayed down, writhing in pain and holding his left knee. The first-team all-conference selection left the game and did not return. Rhody then scored six points in a row on a putback by Fatts Russell, two free throws by Dowtin and a Martin driving leaner.
After two Jenkins 3-pointers stabilized VCU and restored the eight-point edge, Rhode Island outscored VCU 10-5 over the final 3:12 of the half and trailed by three at halftime.
Dowtin finished with a team-high 22 points and did not commit a turnover, despite VCU’s pressure defense. Martin chipped in 13 points, Tate scored 12 and Thompson tallied 11. Marcus Santos-Silva dominated the paint for VCU with 26 points and 22 rebounds, reaching the double-double threshold before halftime. In spite of that performance, URI had a 36-28 advantage on points in the paint and a 21-16 edge in second-chance points.