OLEAN — Mark Schmidt informed his team a few days ago that Rhode Island, despite its losing record, had talented guards in Xavier Munford and E.C. Matthews. He told them Munford and Matthews could steal games, a not so veiled hint they would have to be closely guarded.
St. Bonaventure set a goal of limiting the twosome to 50 points. Instead the Rams’ backcourt pair combined for 56 as the Bonnies lost, 87-78, in front of 5,405 on Saturday at the Reilly Center. On a day when the school honored Andrew Nicholson, Schmidt’s signature recruit, by retiring his No. 44 jersey, Munford and Matthews two-stepped all over the occasion.
Munford scored a game-high 32 points and Matthews had 24 as Rhode Island (12-16, 3-10 Atlantic 10) erased a 10-point halftime deficit while ending the Bonnies’ modest three-game winning streak. St. Bonaventure (16-11, 6-7) was hammered on the backboards (40-26) and connected on just one three-pointer on nine tries in the second half.
After shooting 42.9 percent in the first half, Rhode Island — which ended a seven-game losing streak — rebounded to shoot 57.1 in the final 20 minutes behind Munford and Matthews, who were unguardable the entire afternoon.
“We let them get going a little bit and then once they got it going it was hard to stop them,” Schmidt said.
Munford was 10 of 19 from the field, 3 of 6 from long distance and 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. It was the senior from Hillside, N.J., who gave the Rams the lead for good at 71-68, on a three-pointer with three minutes left in the game. He also ignited the Rams after halftime by scoring 12 points during a seven-minute stretch that saw St. Bonaventure’s 10-point lead shrink to one-point, 52-51, with nearly 12 minutes remaining.
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-5 Matthews was 8 of 16 from the floor, 2 of 5 from three-point range and 6 of 7 from the charity stripe.
“It was very frustrating considering we knew everything they were going to run,” said St. Bonaventure senior guard Matthew Wright, who finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals. “Nothing was a surprise, we just didn’t guard them very well. When it came down to crunch time, they just executed. … You’re almost at their mercy, that’s what it felt like.”
After Charlon Kloof cut the Rams’ lead to 74-71 on a layup with 1:45 remaining, Gilvydas Biruta converted a three-point play and Rhode Island led 77-71. Youssou Ndoye, who scored a career-best 21 points, drove in for a layup and the Rams’ lead was four, but the Bonnies couldn’t get any closer than six points in the final minute.
“We’re the ones who shot ourselves in the foot,” Wright said. “We had a perfect chance – it was almost storybook for us to win this game – and in the second half we were terrible.”
The Rams won despite experiencing what can be classified as a trip from hell.
All of the team’s flights Friday kept getting pushed back and eventually canceled because of heavy fog in Rhode Island. They spent the night at a hotel in Providence and got an early wake-up for a 7 a.m. flight. That flight was canceled as well.
The Rams eventually made a 9:45 a.m. flight Saturday to Bradford, Pa., just in time for a pregame meal at 1 p.m., three hours before tipoff. There are worse places to seek food and shelter than the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca, where they received a good dose of pampering before catching a bus for the game.
“I liked it for us,” said Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, the younger brother of University at Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley. “I don’t think we would have had the resolve to win the game if we actually would have taken that flight Friday. … Sometimes that gives you a little bit of that resolve and something you can talk about with the kids. Sometimes it narrows your focus as a team when you have that stuff you’re dealing with.”
After the game, Hurley learned his trip to Western New York would be extended. Rams Sports Information Director Mike Laprey read Hurley a text that said the pilot for the team’s charter back to Rhode Island had fallen sick and was in the hospital.
The good news was they were sending another pilot. The bad news? The flight wasn’t taking off until 11:30 a.m. this morning.
Hurley stood in silence then shook his head. Nevertheless, his sense of humor remained intact when he joked, “We can hit the blackjack table.”