PITTSBURGH – Rhode Island came into the A-10 Tournament with their NCAA Tournament chances very much on the bubble. Many folks had the Rams on the outside looking in prior to this weekend, meaning they would have to win the A-10 title Sunday. And with top seeded Dayton falling to Davidson on Friday, the path to the championship was a bit smoother than first projected. After desposing of St. Bonaventure and Davidson in their first two games, only VCU stood between them and their first tournament berth since 1999.
The Rams were able to get a game-high 20 points from Jared Terrell and 19 points from E.C. Matthews to hold off VCU 70-63. It is the first conference tournament title in program history.
“When you play in the conference in the conference championship game and you beat VCU, you just earned that trophy,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. “We just earned that trophy, and that’s because of the special group of guys that I got to coach here; a resilient, tough, group of winners.”
“Give Rhode Island credit,” VCU coach Will Wade said. “We fight, we’re hard to kill, but we just could never get over the hump.”
Rhode Island took a 40-27 into halftime, holding their opponent to 9-38 from the field and riding a hot hand from three, going 6-13 in the first half. VCU was able to scratch back in the second half, cutting the Rams double digit lead to as many as three with 1:20 remaining. But Matthews would come up big in the final minute, sinking a jumper with :55 seconds to go and knocking down two big free throws to stretch their lead to seven. But the biggest play of the game was made by Terrell, whose steal of JeQuan Lewis, who led the Rams with 15 points, with :26 seconds left all but clinched the game for Rhode Island.
“These games get won by players making winning plays, coming over and getting a big deflection or making a big steal,” Hurley said. “You know, finishing or scoring in the last eight minutes of the game, having closers. VCU was surging and then that steal there just got the momentum back and gave us a lot of confidence.”
Matthews and teammate Hassan Martin were named all-tournament team along with Lewis, Davidson’s Jack Gibbs and George Mason’s Marquise Moore. The media selected Matthews as the most outstanding player in the tournament after averaging 19 points in three games.
With Rhode Island earning the conference’s automatic bid, it looks like the A-10 will have three teams in this year’s NCAA tournament, the same number as last year when it sent Dayton, St. Joe’s and VCU. As of now, Rhode Island is projected to be a #10 or #11 seed while Dayton and VCU are listed currently as #9 seeds.
Lewis didn’t seem too nervous about the Rams tournament chances.
“We’re in good shape,” Lewis said. “We’re just going to wait and see who we got, where we go.”
This year’s tournament set a new conference revenue record for ticket sales over the seven games played at PPG Paints Arena. Total revenue was $1.117 million, which broke the previous mark set at last year’s A-10 tournament in Brooklyn of $930,302. It was the first time ticket sales had surpassed $1 million in league history. The combined attendance for the seven games was 50,396.