WASHINGTON — No. 25 Rhode Island needed a second-half rally to finish off Saint Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinals Saturday. Now, the Rams are one step closer to repeating their Selection Sunday itinerary from a year ago.
The defending champion Rams (25-6) advanced to the conference title game with a 90-87 victory behind Andre Berry's 18 points and Fatts Russell's two crucial 3-pointers in the final six minutes.
"We talked about what it felt like on Sunday last year, landing at T.F. Green (Airport in Providence) and having hundreds of fans," coach Dan Hurley said. "We want to experience that again and force (Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette) McGlade to hand us a third straight trophy."
Rhode Island is the first No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 to reach the conference championship game since Saint Louis in 2013. Jeff Dowtin added 16 points and 10 assists for the Rams, while Russell and E.C. Matthews both had 14 points to help erase an 11-point second-half deficit.
"I guess it just took us a while to settle into the moment," Dowtin said. "In the first half, we were kind of rushing our shots a little bit."
Shavar Newkirk had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the fourth-seeded Hawks (16-16), who drubbed Rhode Island 78-48 last week. Saint Joseph's appeared poised to deliver another upset while trying to extend its injury-riddled season.
"There's going to be a point in time when I'm daydreaming this summer and I'll say: `You know what? That's pretty good," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. "It took 90 to beat us."'
Cyril Langevine gave Rhode Island its first lead, 73-71, when he completed a 3-point play with 6:16 remaining. After Newkirk tied it with a basket on the next possession, Russell connected on a 3 to give the Rams the lead for good.
Russell had another 3 with 4:29 to go, and Jared Terrell added a 3 off an offensive rebound and kickout on the Rams' next possession to make it 82-75. Dowtin added an insurance 3 with 19.3 seconds left to put the Rams up 87-81.
The Hawks missed out on a chance to tie when Taylor Funk traveled near midcourt with 0.5 seconds left.
Key to the comeback was Rhode Island's offensive rebounding. The Rams scored 21 second-chance points, including 19 in the second half. Beyond that, the Hawks more than matched Rhode Island.
"We didn't get exactly what we deserved," Martelli said. "That was a championship effort, six guys in double figures, 10 turnovers really nine turnovers. The last one's just silly. That's just silly, that a guy would take away a kid's chance to fire up a half-court shot. That's just silly. But it was offensive rebounds. Great credit to Rhode Island."
Rhode Island: After dropping three of their last five regular-season games, the Rams manufactured tight victories over VCU and Saint Joseph's to reach their second consecutive Atlantic 10 title game.
Saint Joseph's: The Hawks won seven of eight before Saturday's loss and started only one senior in the conference tournament. "They're going to be a big problem next year with that group of young guys," Hurley said.
GOING FOR TWO
Rhode Island will attempt to win consecutive Atlantic 10 tournaments for the first time. The last team to do so was former A-10 member Temple, which won three in a row from 2008 to 2010.
Rhode Island: The Rams will meet either second-seeded St. Bonaventure or third-seeded Davidson in Sunday's title game. Rhode Island managed a season split with both teams.
Saint Joseph's: The Hawks' season is likely finished.