No. 17 Rhode Island host St. Joseph’s in first game as A-10 champs

No. 17 Rhode Island enters this week as an outright regular season conference champion for the first time in 46 years.

After beating visiting Dayton 81-56 on Friday the Rams (23-4, 15-1 Atlantic 10) celebrated the accomplishment of earning their first outright championship since they were the Yankee Conference winners in 1971-72.

It is Rhode Island’s first regular season Atlantic 10 championship since the conference rebranded prior to the 1982-83 season. The Rams have won the conference tournament title twice.

“It’s been a historic season,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. “Really, the last calendar year, going back to February and what this group’s been able to accomplish, it’s historic here. Their legacy as all-time players is set going into the most exciting part of our season.”

Rhode Island still has two regular season games to bask in its championship, including a game against visiting St. Joseph’s (13-15, 8-8) on Tuesday.

“This is just one of the goals that we had at the beginning of the year,” Rhode Island guard Jared Terrell said. “I believe that we can accomplish all of them. We’ve just got to keep playing the way we’re playing.”

The perimeter play of Terrell, Jeff Dowtin and E.C. Matthews fuels Rhode Island’s attack.

Dowtin finished with a game-high 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting against Dayton. Matthews made six straight shots in one stretch to finish with 18 points. Terrell added 17 points, three assists and four steals.

The Rams won their 17th straight home game and set a program record for league victories in a season with 15.

“This is for the fans,” Matthews said of the sellout crowd of 7,880. “They stuck with us when things weren’t pretty years back. Shout-out to them. This was for the school.”

St. Joseph’s is coming off a 72-70 win at Richmond on Saturday in which sophomore guard Nick Robinson had a career-high 20 points and senior guard Shavar Newkirk had 18 points including two free throws with 14 seconds remaining to secure the win.

The Hawks have won four of their last five games after suffering through a five-game losing streak. Six of their eight conference losses are by three points or less.

This is the first meeting of the season between Rhode Island and St. Joseph’s.

“That’s our eighth game that was decided with the ball in the air on the last play. We’ve lost six of them,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said after beating Richmond, a game after the Hawks lost at George Mason on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“I have a lot of respect for the players on my team because the way we lost (against George Mason). We were down 20 with 15 minutes to go and we tied it with five seconds to go. We broke a ball loose, they picked it up and put it in.”

Rhode Island has been more fortunate, winning 32 of its last 37 games dating to last season.

“This team is the best team that we’ve had,” Hurley said. “We can lock you up and then we can score. We can go on runs. We can do it at both ends.

“To me, (winning the regular season title over the conference tournament championship) is the biggest accomplishment. It’s hard to have this great of a season.”