SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The University of Rhode Island men's basketball team saw its season sitting on a precipice as February ended. Conference losses had begun to pile up — five straight and nine overall — and it was up to the team's core leaders to do something about it.
Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine, Fatts Russell and Christion Thompson called a series of player-only meetings, and the Rams haven't lost since. They're riding a four-game win streak heading into the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
“At one point during the year, we were almost counted out,” coach David Cox said following a practice session Monday. “That group in there, those individual [players], not the staff, not myself, but those individuals decided individually to make some changes. Then, collectively, they decided to make some changes.”
“We took a few on the chin, but everyone stuck together and kept fighting,” Dowtin said. “Fought through adversity. We came together as a group, had a few player meetings.”
“We just never stop,” Russell said. “A lot of people gave up on us, but we always stayed together. That's just a credit to the coaches and our leaders. ... I could've quit when I was down. I was in a really bad place. I just kept fighting. Now, we're here.”
“We had to make a decision,” Langevine said. “Our season — we were losing, five games in a row. We made the decision to come together and play basketball. ... We got tired of losing. I haven't lost since high school. First year, went to the tournament. Second year, went to the tournament. I plan on going again.”
To achieve that goal this season, the Rams will have to win four games in four days. Their 9-9 A-10 regular-season mark earned them the No. 8 seed in the tourney. They play No. 9 La Salle today at noon, with the winner set to play No. 1 VCU on Friday.
The first meeting of the two teams went to the Rams, 78-67. Dowtin scored 22 points in that win, while Russell had 20.
That loss put the Explorers at 3-14 overall at the time, but they've played like a very different team as of late. They more than doubled their win total with a four-game win streak in January, and ended the season a respectable 8-10 in conference play.
“We're playing against a very confident group in La Salle,” Cox said. “They've overachieved themselves. They have a coach who is very fiery and competitive, who gets them to play hard and selfless basketball.
“They're definitely a different team. They have found some depth. They have a number of guys playing well, including Pookie Powell. Seems like he has been in this league forever.”
Powell has actually only played in the A-10 for three seasons. His career started at Georgetown, where he spent a full season. He is La Salle's leading scorer this season (15.4 points per game) and is also their assists leader.
“They're a tough team,” Russell said. “Really good guard play, scrappy. We just have to be tough out there.”
Russell has been a key component to URI's resurgence. He scored 68 points in the final two games of the regular season, earning co-A-10 Player of the Week honors. After a dreadful sophomore campaign shooting the ball, he was 8 of 16 on 3-pointers in the last two games.
“He's also playing within himself,” Cox said. “He took 15 shots last game, made 10. Maybe the younger Fatts, after making his first few shots, maybe he chucks up a few more. Heat-check shots. He played within himself.”
Prior to leaving for Brooklyn on Tuesday, the Rams held a series of intense practices in their home gym. It was all hands on deck for the A-10 prep, including former standout Stan Robinson. Fresh from a G-League assignment, Robinson took in URI's win over UMass and has been assisting at practice.
“I called Stan just prior to our George Washington game,” Cox said. “After our fifth [straight] loss. I called him just to find where he was at and what he was doing. I asked him if there was any way he could get up here.
“I've known him for so long. He's a warrior. I knew he would be great around our guys. He has been. He doesn't mince his words.”
Neither do the current Rams. They had one goal in mind following the end of the regular season.
“To win this championship, that's the one goal,” Russell said. “There is no other goal. All our guys are on board. Me, Jeff, Cyril, our leaders.”
“It's win or go home,” Langevine said. “I'm confident; my teammates are confident. We're just gonna go out there and play.”
“We're not going down to Brooklyn for anything else but to win a championship,” Cox said. “That's the goal. That's been established here, those are the expectations.”