Davidson’s Wildcats are returning home from snowy New England with a share of the Atlantic 10 lead in their pockets.
The Wildcats won their sixth straight game Wednesday, beating Rhode Island 60-59 in the Ryan Center, thanks to a 3-pointer by guard Jack Gibbs with 11.8 seconds remaining.
The victory moved the Wildcats (20-6, 11-4) into a tie for first place with the Rams (19-7, 11-4), Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth. Dayton beat George Mason 76-63 Wednesday, while VCU fell 67-63 in double overtime against Richmond.
Davidson won despite scoring just 12 points in the game’s final 14 minutes and seeing what seemed a comfortable, 11-point lead become a four-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining.
But clutch plays by senior guard Tyler Kalinoski – who converted a three-point play that trimmed the Rams’ lead to one point with 51 seconds left – and Gibbs saved the Wildcats. After Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin (17 points, 16 rebounds) made one of two free throws with 27 seconds left, Gibbs found himself open in the corner.
“Never give up, right?” said Gibbs, who scored 15 points and had four assists and three steals. “Coach (Bob McKillop) tells us if we have an open shot, take it. I found myself open, so I let it go and hoped for the best.”
The shot went in, but the Rams had one last chance to win it. A 3-pointer by Jared Terrell missed with 0.8 seconds remaining.
The Rams, the Atlantic 10’s top defensive team, held the Wildcats to 20 points under their season average. Davidson, which leads the league in most offensive categories, shot 41.1 percent from the field (23.3 in the second half) and was just three of 19 from 3-point range.
Still, Davidson took advantage of Rhode Island’s aggressive defense in the first half, using deceptive cuts and screens for multiple drives and backdoor layups on the way to a 38-31 halftime lead. The Wildcats scored 26 points in the paint in the first half, with Kalinoski hitting their only 3-pointer.
But Rhode Island’s defense took hold in the second half. Davidson went cold, going 5-of-25 during one stretch. The Wildcats seemed anxious and turned the ball over eight times. For the game, Rhode Island turned 14 Davidson turnovers into 16 points.
“We were too fast with the dribble,” said McKillop. “Dribbling is like a gun: If it’s not used the right way, it will kill you. We used it the wrong way and dribbled ourselves into trouble.”
But the Wildcats are nothing if not relentless offensively. They found their way back into the game, thanks to Kalinoski (21 points, eight rebounds) and Gibbs.
“The temptation for a coach is to use the joy stick, or pull the reins back with your shooters,” said McKillop. “With the way we were shooting, why did I let them take so many shots? If we hadn’t been doing that, keeping them confident, maybe Tyler doesn’t drive and maybe Jack doesn’t make that 3.”
It was a tough loss for Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley to take.
“That was a crusher,” Hurley said. “We had a team of (Davidson’s) quality beat and we let them off the hook. It was like having your heart ripped out of your chest, thrown to the floor and stomped on.”