Rhode Island guard Xavier Munford looks to dish off
around Metro State’s Harrison Goodrick in the initial contest of the NIT
Season Tip-Off West Region games at McKale Center.
In the 19 months since becoming Rhode Island’s head coach, Dan Hurley hasn’t led an easy existence.
Monday night was no exception.
The Rams, rebuilding with seven newcomers after an eight-win season, trailed by 14 early and came back to barely hold off Division II Metro State 66-63 in an NIT Season Tip-Off West Region first-round game at McKale Center.
It was a struggle not only because the Rams are still working in so many new players, but also because Metro State just happens to be the No. 1-ranked team in Division II. The team from Denver ran a zone defense that threw Rhode Island off early.
“It was a gritty, gutty performance,” Hurley said. “When we found out who our opponent would be a couple of months ago via Twitter, we knew what this game was going to be.”
Rhode Island battled back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a 47-45 lead with 12:39 left in the game, holding Metro State to just 3-for-13 shooting over the first 10 minutes of the second half.
The Rams built a six-point lead with 10 minutes left, but had to hold off frantic Metro State rallies toward the end. The Roadrunners cut it to 63-61 with 26 seconds left when Mitch McCarron drove inside for a layup, but URI’s Xavier Munford hit three of four free throws in the final seconds to salt away the win.
A year ago, before they had three Division I transfers who became eligible and before three promising freshmen arrived, the Rams might not have won a game like this. They struggled in Hurley’s first season, winning only three Atlantic 10 games, and sometimes suiting up only eight scholarship players.
“We weren’t exactly ready for liftoff,” Hurley said. “But we’ve recruited some good, young players, and I think we’re going to get better.”
For Metro State, the game was also something of a test. The Roadrunners went 32-3 last season and lost by only a point, 74-73, to Drury University (Mo.) in the Division II championship game. They return three starters from that team.
Metro State led by 14 points in the first half and took a 40-30 lead into halftime, scoring 13 points off 12 URI turnovers in the first half, while shooting 51.9 percent from the field.
While those efforts ultimately weren’t enough for a win, Metro State center Nicolas Kay left McKale Center with some satisfaction. The D-II Roadrunners had put a serious scare in a mid-major Division I team.
“This was a rare opportunity to play a good Division I team, and we wanted to come out and play well,” Kay said. “I think we did that tonight.”