Danny Hurley — he gave up asking people to call him Dan after he turned 45 in January — stood in the hallway outside Rhode Island’s locker room inside Capital One Arena on Friday afternoon with his head down, clearly a little embarrassed.
“Look at what I did,” he said, pointing at the left pocket of his suit pants. “My gyrations.”
Hurley is almost as active on the bench as he was in the days when he was Seton Hall’s point guard. At some point during Rhode Island’s 76-67 escape from Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals, he tore the pants pocket.
“I finished it off in the locker room after we won,” he said, pointing to the tear down to his knee. “I figured the players would enjoy that. Then I remembered I have to stick around here and scout. Bad move.”
Hurley hasn’t made very many bad moves this season. The Rams won the A-10 regular season title going away and will next face Saint Joseph’s, an easy 68-49 winner over George Mason, in Saturday’s first semifinal. Rhode Island won this tournament a year ago when it arrived in Pittsburgh not knowing whether it was a lock for the NCAA tournament. This time around, at 24-6, the only question is where the Rams will be seeded. And yet, it was pretty clear Friday, they didn’t want to lose their opening game in the tournament before the tournament.
Hurley’s Rams beat Mike Rhoades’s Rams on Friday largely because they are a team that knows how to make plays when they most need to do so. The entire afternoon was a struggle. VCU was more desperate, knowing it was win or go home. For the first time since 2010, there won’t be an NCAA tournament bid forthcoming; nor are the Rams (18-15) likely to play in the National Invitation Tournament or one of the third-tier pay-to-play events.
“They’re always hard to play against,” Rhode Island point guard Jeff Dowtin said. “We knew exactly what kind of game we’d get from them.”
Hurley knew it, too. He knew it would feel like a road game for his team because VCU’s fans travel like no other team’s fans in the A-10. They come in large numbers, they’re extremely vocal, and they’re intensely loyal.
“They have great fans,” Hurley said. “Doesn’t matter where this tournament is played; they show up.”
The larger problem for Hurley was VCU’s desperation. His team clinched the regular season title with a resounding 81-56 victory over Dayton with a week to go in the regular season. They then cut down the nets to celebrate.
“I will never do that again,” Hurley said with a smile. “I cost myself at least one game and maybe two.” The first was a stunning, 78-48 loss to Saint Joseph’s on senior night; the second was at Davidson last Saturday, when URI blew a six-point lead in the final 40 seconds by missing the front end of three one-and-ones.
For a while Friday, that trend continued. The Rams were 3 of 11 from the free throw line during one stretch. That was when VCU had a chance to keep its season alive by pulling a major upset.
Hurley knew that a desperate team is a dangerous team. He also knew that there was no way he could convince his players that they were desperate — they all know they’ll be playing next week.
So he took a different tack.
“I talked to them about legacy,” he said. “The last two trophies the Atlantic 10 gave out were to Rhode Island: last year’s tournament and this year’s regular season. If we win this tournament again, that’s three straight trophies. You do that, maybe you’ve got a little bit of a dynasty going.”
The closest thing the A-10 has had to a dynasty in recent years is VCU. Under Shaka Smart and Will Wade, the Rams had reached the past five championship games of this tournament, winning the title in 2015. They also won the regular season title in 2016.
This has been a different season for VCU. The Rams lost seven games at Siegel Center, simply unheard of in a building that has been sold out for 116 straight games. Their 18-15 final record marks the first time since 2006 — 12 years and five coaches ago — that VCU has failed to win at least 24 games.
Some schools would kill for 18 wins, but that’s not what is expected at VCU. When the Rams lost their final home game nine days ago on a last-second tip-in by George Mason’s Ian Boyd, the school’s longtime radio voice, Robby Robinson, spent most of his postgame show pleading with fans to not give up on the Rams — now or in the future.
“I felt like I had several thousand people lying on a couch and it was my job to tell them everything will be all right,” Robinson said. “It was a long 45 minutes.”
For most of Friday’s 40 minutes, VCU played about as well as it has all season. Rhoades decided to throw some zone defense at Rhode Island just to mix up the Rams. For a while, it did.
“I swear I watched 15 VCU tapes, and I think I saw one possession of zone,” Hurley said. “It messed us up for a while.”
So did Justin Tillman, playing in what turned out to be his last college game, giving Rhode Island’s big men fits inside. About the only way the Rams stopped him was by giving him space on the perimeter so he would shoot from outside the three-point line, where he finished 1 for 5. Inside, he was 8 of 14, finishing with 23 points and 15 rebounds.
VCU had the lead at 59-58 and the ball with under 6:30 to go. But Khris Lane, a fifth-year senior who never lived up to Rhoades’s expectations, missed a jumper. Dowtin, a product of St. John’s College High in the District who finished with a team-high 18 points, promptly hit a three-pointer for a 61-59 lead. Tillman missed an ill-timed three, and Dowtin scored again. Then, URI hit its final eight free throws to wrap up the win.
“We have to get tougher, and we have to be more basketball-aware in the future,” Rhoades said. “They hit tough shots down the stretch when we still had a chance to win. That’s what good teams do.”
Rhode Island may not be a league dynasty yet, but it has become the target for everyone else in the A-10. That was evident last month when St. Bonaventure beat the Rams and its student section stormed the court.
“That’s what you want,” Hurley said. “We didn’t play especially well for most of the day today, but a lot of that was because of them. We made the plays when we had to. That’s the sign of a good team.”
He tugged at the tear in his pants again and shook his head. “Better find a new suit for tomorrow,” he said.
At the far end of the hall, Rhoades could only wish he had that problem.
“Bus leaves at 3:30,” the members of the Peppas, VCU’s superb pep band, were told as the players lined up for postgame handshakes.
For VCU, It was time to go home. For Rhode Island, the chase for another trophy continues.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/Feinstein.
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