SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Emerging from a three-game losing streak and the sudden dismissal of their second-leading scorer, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team was on the cusp of another marquee win over a top contender in the Atlantic 10 standings.
VCU dealt URI a heartbreaker instead.
Zeb Jackson hit a jumper from the elbow at the buzzer to give VCU a 55-54 win over Rhody on Wednesday night at the Ryan Center.
“Disappointed for our players because I know how hard they worked, prepared and played,” URI coach Archie Miller said. “But sometimes you get kicked in the stomach. It is what it is. Got to find a way to get up off the mat and get ready for Saturday.”
A victory would have slotted alongside wins over second-place Dayton and third-place Fordham, not to mention a near-miss on the road at St. Louis. That Wednesday’s performance came out of a particularly tough stretch — and came against the first-place club — was another sign of Rhody’s mettle.
“I felt like we controlled the game for almost 40 minutes,” guard Sebastian Thomas said. “With the situation that happened, we needed some guys to step up. Against VCU, one of the best teams in the league, our effort was really good tonight.”
The Rams felt like they did enough to win, unlike some of their other tight losses. They steadied themselves after a drought allowed VCU to get back into the game.
With URI down 53-52 in the final minute, Ishmael Leggett drove to the basket and drew a foul. He made both free throws, putting the Rams ahead by one with just four seconds remaining.
“Right when we thought it was getting away, we kind of answered,” Miller said. “We did enough. But damn — just disappointed for our guys. Our guys, I thought they were as ready to play tonight as we’ve been.”
Out of a timeout, VCU inbounded the ball to Jackson just shy of mid-court. He got a step on Sebastian Thomas and drove just inside the 3-point line. With Malik Martin challenging the shot, Jackson pulled up, elevated and buried the game-winner.
URI could do nothing but tip its hat on the shot — but regretted letting him get to that spot.
“Give Zeb Jackson a lot of credit,” Miller said. “Obviously, it’s a tough shot, but if we could have executed a little bit better — slowing him down, turning him one time. At the end of the day, you want to corral that thing a little bit. That comes down to me.
"Called a timeout with four seconds to go specifically to be able to allow those guys not to foul, to corral the ball and slow it down. The last play comes down to me and having our guys execute that a little better.”
Before Jackson’s heroics, URI led for more than 34 minutes. A strong defensive effort had VCU buried for much of the game. The visitors shot 31% from the field in the first half.
As has often been the case for Rhode Island this season, it was a scoring drought that changed the game. With VCU ramping up its trademark defense and closing down driving lanes, URI committed 11 second-half turnovers.
A 44-31 lead with 11:44 left was the largest of the night, but it had dwindled to one just five-and-a-half minutes later. URI missed six straight shots and went 4:39 without a point.
“I thought our kids played hard. I thought our defense definitely was good enough to win the game, no questions asked,” Miller said. “Offensively in the second half, it got stagnant. We had some turnovers. But we made enough plays to win the game. It’s a 50-50 game.”
The dry spell was not decisive, thanks to the response by Rhody. Jalen Carey hit three big — including a low-shot-clock 3-pointer with 2:09 left — to keep the Rams afloat.
It was 52-51 when Jamir Watkins scored on a putback at the 21-second mark. URI went to Leggett on its next trip and he delivered with the drawn foul and the clutch free throws.
“We had a couple of big-time responses with some baskets,” Miller said. “Being able to execute down one. Ish Leggett going to the line there, he shows his toughness.”
Leggett led all scorers with 21 points. Carey added 13. Into the starting lineup with the dismissal of Brayon Freeman, Thomas had nine points and three assists, while turning the ball over just once against VCU’s pressure.
Brandon Johns Jr. led VCU with 17 points. Leading scorer Ace Baldwin was 0-for-10 from the field and was held to two points.
“There haven’t been any easy days. But our guys answered the bell to win the game,” Miller said. “Give VCU credit. The guy made a heck of a shot. In four seconds, he got the ball right where he needed to get it.”
The loss puts URI at 8-17 overall and 4-9 in A-10 play. The Rams will be at home again on Saturday for a matchup with UMass and on Wednesday for a game against George Washington.
“Our effort level, our preparation — the guys have done a great job,” Miller said. “The kids are resilient. You wouldn’t know our record. You watch guys and they’re playing hard as hell right now, which is what you want to do. But you’re going to have to get up off the mat and do it again on Saturday — keep doing it, keep showing up.”
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