SEABROOK – The stat line figures to stand the test of time, at least in University of Rhode Island basketball history. Jeff Dowtin’s career-high 23 points, including 10-of-10 from the foul line, powered the Rams to an 84-72 upset of Creighton in Sacramento, Calif., on March 17 for their first NCAA Tournament victory in almost […]
SEABROOK – The stat line figures to stand the test of time, at least in University of Rhode Island basketball history.
Jeff Dowtin’s career-high 23 points, including 10-of-10 from the foul line, powered the Rams to an 84-72 upset of Creighton in Sacramento, Calif., on March 17 for their first NCAA Tournament victory in almost two decades.
Rhode Island’s return to March Madness carried a distinct Prince George’s County flair.
Dowtin, a freshman from Upper Marlboro, played the unlikely hero in No. 12 seed Rhode Island’s first-round victory, while Landover native Stanford Robinson came off the bench to score a team-high 21 points in a 75-72 loss to third-seeded Oregon Ducks two days later.
For Dowtin, the gravity of the feat didn’t start to sink in until he reached the team hotel afterward. The waiting swarm of friends, family and fans provided a raucous welcome fit for the long-awaited breakthrough, even 3,000-plus miles from home.
“That was kind of a big moment in our lives,” Dowtin said. “There was so much support for us going into the tournament. We just knew that we had the whole state on our backs and ready to roll with us.”
The two guards, who have known each other for years, helped craft a satisfying ending to a roller-coaster season that nearly went off the rails in the face of lofty expectations. The Rams bounced back from a mid-season slump to win the Atlantic-10 Tournament and play their best on the biggest stage.
“It seemed like everything we went through was all just setting us up for the tournament,” said Robinson, who hit 10-of-12 shots from the field to match his career high against Oregon. “We were going to go in there with a tough mindset, with our backs against the wall, and come out swinging. We weren’t going to leave the fight until we came out on top.”
Dowtin was the youngster thrown into the fire on a veteran squad. The 19-year-old was as ready as he could be for the rigors of the college game after playing his high school ball at St. John’s in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. He found he still had a lot to learn to compete at the next level.
After watching from the bench for most of November, Dowtin was pushed into the starting lineup when an illness knocked Rhode Island’s top point guard out of action. He managed to seize the spot and keep it the rest of the way.
With so many scoring options, Head Coach Danny Hurley needed someone running the offense who could make the smart play and limit mistakes. Slowly but surely, Dowtin built the confidence to do it.
He ended up averaging 5.5 points with 69 assists against 25 turnovers in 22.2 minutes-per-game. It was good enough to earn a spot on the A-10’s All-Rookie team.
“I know I had high expectations, but I think my actions exceeded my expectations,” Dowtin said. “Being able to come in and start and be a big contributor to the team was just icing on the cake.”
Robinson had to pay his dues to earn this opportunity. A heralded high school recruit who left Paul VI in Fairfax to play his senior season at Findlay Prep in Nevada, he started his college career at Indiana.
When he looked to transfer after his sophomore season, Robinson cut his list down to Rhode Island and Virginia Commonwealth. It was Hurley’s detailed plan for how he’d spend his redshirt year that sold Robinson on the Rams.
Robinson had long been known for his ability to get to the rim, but outside shooting was never much of a part of his game. Last season, Hurley assigned a manager to work with Robinson when the team was on the road. Together, they worked to clean up Robinson’s footwork and build a more reliable jumper.
“It was just a lot of reps,” Robinson said. “A lot of, lot of reps.”
Robinson is not where he wants to be yet, but he connected on 21-of-56 (37.5 percent) three-pointers this season. It was a major improvement from his 3-for-26 (11.5 percent) over his two years as a Hoosier. Now, he’s at least forced defenders to step out and guard him at the three-point arc.
Robinson emerged as a weapon for Hurley off the bench, supplying instant offense and energy with the skills to fit in for longer stretches, if needed. He averaged 6.4 points in 18.2 minutes-per-game with a team-high 39 steals.
Robinson’s value was on full display against the Ducks when his hot hand helped the Rams rally back. He rebounded from a tough game in the NCAA opener with the best performance of his career.
“It just felt like a dream come true, honestly,” Robinson said. “When you’re younger, you picture yourself in the tournament doing big things, making all these big shots. It felt like a dream. A dream that I was controlling.”
The future looks bright for Rhode Island with most of the roster coming back, including Dowtin and Robinson. Dowtin wants to add some bulk in the weight room, while Robinson will keep honing his shot. The Rams have a summer trip to France coming that provides extra practice time and a couple of exhibitions to get a head start on 2017-2018.
Next time, they’ll be chasing a bar they set themselves. They’d like to duplicate that NCAA postgame scene again. Preferably a couple of times.
“We want to show we’re still a powerhouse team,” Dowtin said. “We’re not going to take a step back. We’re going to keep moving forward.”