Without Gaston, Rams Beat Rhode Island; Now 2-3 in Conference



Michael Hayes / The Ram Mandell Thomas played all 40 minutes against Rhode Island, scoring 17 points and recording seven rebounds.
Michael Hayes / The Ram Mandell Thomas played all 40 minutes against Rhode Island, scoring 17 points and recording seven rebounds.

Fordham head coach Tom Pecora has made this season’s goal clear: to qualify for March’s Atlantic 10 tournament. The conference is one of the nation’s strongest, so that will be no easy task, but the Rams took a step in the right direction on Saturday afternoon, beating Rhode Island 66-63 in a packed Rose Hill Gym.

The win was an important one for Fordham, considering the Rams were blown out the previous Wednesday by Dayton, 96-51. Pecora called the loss “embarrassing.” The team left Ohio early Thursday morning and went straight from the airport to the gym, arriving at about 5 a.m. for a 90-minute practice which Pecora described as “more track practice than basketball.”

Senior forward Chris Gaston did not play in the team’s loss to Dayton. He re-aggravated his injured left knee and did not make the trip. Gaston was also forced to sit against URI and Pecora says there is no timetable for his return. When the original injury kept Gaston sidelined for six games in November and early December, Fordham went 1-5. Against URI, however, Fordham’s bigs played well enough to make up for Gaston’s absence.

Freshman center Travion Leonard made his presence known early on, scoring each of Fordham’s first six points. He finished with 13 points and eight rebounds in a season-high 33 minutes of play, more than double his season average of 15 minutes per game.

Leonard and sophomore center Ryan Canty formed a fearsome duo on the inside, combining for 16 rebounds and playing good interior defense. Freshman forward Ryan Rhoomes collected 11 boards of his own as Fordham out-rebounded URI by a 45-34 margin.

Leonard and Canty played much of the first half together, and their size gave Fordham a significant edge down low and helped keep things close. It was a one-point game at the half, with Fordham trailing 32-31.

The story of the second half was Fordham’s guard play. Junior Branden Frazier scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half and freshman Mandell Thomas had nine of his 17 after the break.

“We win close games because we have good guards,” Pecora said, highlighting the performances of Frazier and Thomas.

Fordham struggled from the free-throw line in the early going. URI committed its 10th team foul at the 10:39 mark of the second, putting Fordham in the double-bonus. Up to that point, Fordham was 4-13 from the line, but from then on the Rams were 15-20.

It was a tough, physical game, with plenty of fouls called against both teams — 27 for URI and 19 for Fordham. When these two teams played last year at Rose Hill, Gaston and URI’s Jonathan Holton (who has since left the team due to legal issues) were involved in a confrontation that resulted in punches being thrown and both players being ejected and suspended for a game. Though neither Gaston nor Holton was involved in Saturday’s contest, tempers flared once again. Two technical fouls were assessed against each team. URI head coach Danny Hurley repeatedly argued with the referees, at one point becoming so irate that when an assistant tried to calm him down, he shoved him aside and continued the argument.

“I thought the game was very intense,” Pecora said. “There were a couple moments there, obviously, where it looked like it was going to go over the top. I’m glad we were able to keep our poise, because that’s not what we’re all about.”

Fordham’s clutch foul shooting was what gave the Rams the edge in the closing minutes. Frazier was 7-8 from the line in the final four minutes of the game. Down the stretch, Fordham’s offensive strategy appeared to be to have Frazier drive to the basket and hope he would draw a foul.

With one minute left in the game, Frazier stepped to line for two foul shots, trailing 63-62. He made the first but missed the second. Rhoomes grabbed the rebound and Fordham called a timeout. After the timeout, redshirt freshman guard Jeffery Short’s shot attempt went begging, but Leonard was there for the rebound and was fouled on the put-back attempt. He missed the first free throw attempt, but drained the second to give Fordham a 64-63 lead with 38 seconds remaining. URI had a few good looks at a basket in the final seconds, but none were able to fall and Leonard’s free throw proved to be the game-winner.

With the win, Fordham improved to 2-3 in conference play, with both wins coming against the bottom two teams in the Atlantic 10 standings (URI and Duquesne). They begin a difficult stretch of conference games, starting with Saint Joseph’s at home on Wednesday night. After that the Rams play three of the A-10’s most talented teams: VCU, Saint Louis, La Salle.