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Bucky Gleason: Rhode Island pounds Bonnies into submission

PITTSBURGH – St. Bonaventure knew what was coming Friday against Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals. It wasn’t as if Rams coach Danny Hurley had some secret game plan stashed away in a vault at the Federal Reserve.

Plan A: Get the ball inside.

Plan B: See Plan A.

Rhode Island flexed its muscles and exploited its distinct advantage before delivering the inevitable knockout punch in a 74-63 victory over the Bonnies in PPG Paints Arena. The Bonnies were eliminated from the A-10 tourney, have no chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and very well could have played their final game of the season.

Their downfall Friday had nothing to do with X's and O's or desire and everything to do with physics. Rhode Island was bigger and stronger, an immovable object no matter how much force St. Bonaventure thrust upon them around the basket. The Rams had a field day from, well, the field, made 19 of their first 29 shots from two-point range and shot 55.8 percent from the floor in the game.

“You can try to trick them, but they were just more physical than us," Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. "They were men inside. We had young guys who were trying to battle. We fought, but we were just outmatched, physically.”

E.C. Matthews led Rhode Island with 20 points. The Rams most effective player was Hassan Martin, who had 19 points without making a single shot from outside the lane. It was a mismatch, and Rhode Island outscored Bona, 38-20, in the paint.

It happens when a team shows the patience and determination required to get easy shots near the rim. St. Bonaventure didn’t have the size and athleticism required push to deter Rhode Island's path to the basket or push the ball to the perimeter. The Bonnies were prepared for a challenge, and the Rams provided one.

Rhode Island’s objective against any team is playing pressure defense and pounding teams into submission on offense. It opened the game with two three-pointers before getting back to its usual business. The Rams scored their next 10 baskets within 2 feet of the bucket, pulled away early in the second half and secured the win.

"We struggled with that all year, the bigger bigs, and it showed" Friday, Bona senior Denzell Gregg said. "They didn't do anything new."

St. Bonaventure led the conference in scoring this season at 78 points per game. Rhode Island was the best defensive team, allowing 65 points per game. The Rams were more effective Friday. Bona scored only three baskets in the final eight minutes of the first half and failed to sustain any push in the final 20 minutes.

Bona would have needed to shoot the lights out Friday to have a chance. Matt Mobley attempted only four shots and failed to make a field goal. It wasn’t a lack of effort to shoot the ball but an inability to get shots off against a great defensive team. The Rams effectively took him out of the game. He finished with eight points, 14 below his season average.

The Bonnies stayed within striking distance largely because the Rams struggled to make free throws. Rhode Island missed 10 of its first 16 attempts, allowing Bona to chip away at small leads in the first half. Despite its early success, Rhode Island showed little interest in attempting shots from beyond 10 feet.

Why bother?

"Our depth showed up in the game," Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley said. "They were playing freshmen. We were playing men, especially in the front court."

Rhode Island didn’t disrupt Bona’s rhythm in the first half. They took it away, rolled it into a ball, threw it in the garbage and lit the garbage on fire. Every possession was an escape attempt while suffocating in the half-court offense.

Jaylen Adams finished with 21 points while Idris Taqqee and Gregg had 12 apiece. Mobley had only one attempt and had two points in the first 20 minutes. He and Adams averaged more than 38 points per game combined going into the tournament.

“It was more of the same" from Rhode Island, Adams said. "They were just more physical than us. It’s something we’ve got to work on over the summer. … They play a real physical brand of basketball. They jump down your shorts. In the first game, I think we handled it a little better. Today, we weren’t able to get open shots.”

The Bonnies had little choice but use their speed, push the ball up the floor and attempt to beat the Rams in transition. They had limited success early in the second half and briefly had the lead, 35-34, with 15:48 remaining, but Rhode Island regained control with an 11-2 run.

In fact, there was never a sense Rhode Island would lose control with the way they hammered Bona inside. The Bonnies attempted to play a zone defense, switched to a man-to-man, but lacked the size and strength to keep the Rams away from the basket. Rhode Island scored all but a handful of baskets from close range.

"They didn't have much size," Martin said. "When we lobbed it, I was there to finish it."

Rhode Island will play Davidson in the semifinals Saturday afternoon. Davidson took down top-seed Dayton, 73-67, after building a 12-point lead in the first half. Senior guard Jack Gibbs had 34 points, including back-to-back threes to help the Wildcats pull away in the final minute.

Plan A for St. Bonaventure was winning the A-10 tourney and going to the Big Dance for the first time in five years. The Bonnies' future will be determined Sunday after the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. St. Bonaventure will be left with Plan B, waiting for a call from the National Invitation Tournament or the lesser College Basketball Invitational.

“It’s March," Gregg said. "There’s a lot of basketball left to play – for other people. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

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