Rhode Island guard Jeff Dowtin pointed across the court at the Rams’ cheering section and tapped his chest. Some of those fans had traveled all the way across the country to witness a moment nearly two decades in the making.
The 11th-seeded Rams rode their stifling defense and held off a second-half run by sixth-seeded Creighton to secure an 84-72 upset win at Golden 1 Center on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was Rhode Island’s first tournament win since 1998, when the Rams reached the Elite Eight.
Afterward, Rhode Island sent five players along with coach Dan Hurley to the post-game interview podium – fitting for a game in which five Rams players scored in double digits and their team combined to hold a potent Creighton offense to 40 percent shooting.
“Honestly, it feels like I’m dreaming,” senior forward Hassan Martin said. “This is what I’d asked for when I first got here. And it took three, four years, but to finally just be here to experience this is amazing.”
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The Rams hoped to be in this position last year but had their season derailed by injuries. Clinging to its tournament chances a month ago, Rhode Island has now won nine games in a row and will face No. 3 seed Oregon in the second round Sunday.
It marks the progress the Rams have made since Hurley’s first season in 2012-13, when they finished 8-21. Among those on hand for Friday’s win was Hurley’s brother, Bobby, the former Kings guard and current Arizona State head coach, who was watching a game in Sacramento for the first time since the Kings traded him in 1998.
“This is so amazing for the players, the school, for our fans who have suffered for many years, and for the state,” Dan Hurley said. “We’re just so happy to bring a shine to Rhode Island right now.”
This game promised a contrast in styles – Rhode Island’s defense and Creighton’s potent offense – and in the first half the Rams’ defense was stifling, holding the Blue Jays to 26 points and taking a seven-point lead into halftime.
Creighton discovered its accuracy and pushed the pace in the second half. But the Rams answered every run – helped, ironically, by excellent free-throw shooting. Only a 65.7-percent free-throw shooting team this season, Rhode Island made 28 of 31 attempts from the line, with both Dowtin and E.C. Matthews going a perfect 10 for 10.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were held to 40 percent shooting or below for just the second time as a season that began with great promise came to an abrupt end. Creighton started 18-1, but went 7-9 in its last 16 games after losing starting point guard Maurice Watson, Jr., to a season-ending knee injury.
“With all we went through with injuries and just adversity and everything, it could have been easy for us to divide as a program and at times even give up a little bit,” Creighton senior center Zach Hanson said. “That’s never what we did. We always stuck together. We always kept our heads up.”
Martin helped hold Blue Jays center Justin Patton, a 7-foot freshman who’s expected to be a first-round NBA draft pick, to eight points and seven rebounds before fouling out. Creighton’s three-point shooting, a strength all season, faltered at an inopportune time in a 7-for-23 performance.
Blue Jays head coach Greg McDermott complimented the Rams’ physicality on defense and called them “a team that, on the right night, can beat anybody in this tournament.”
Their next challenge is the third-ranked Ducks, and Hurley said with a smile that he would appeal to his brother “for a little Pac-12 intel.”
“It was a vacation-type trip for him,” Hurley said. “Now it becomes a working trip.”