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Russell's return home sparks Rhode Island past St. Joe's

01/16/2020, 12:30am EST
By Josh Verlin

Fatts Russell (above) showed off his skills in leading URI to a 71-61 win on Wednesday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It took Daron “Fatts” Russell about 30 minutes to find what makes him so special on Wednesday night at Hagan Arena. The Rhode Island junior guard didn’t seem to have his best stuff for the first half-and-then-some in a game at Saint Joseph’s, as the shorthanded Hawks threatened to throw some ice water on the Rams’ momentum.

Then, suddenly, it was there.

“When I get it going, I feel like any shot I throw up, I’m going to make it,” Russell said. “It’s just something I have in me –– I don’t know how to describe it, honestly.”

After hitting just one of his eight first-half shots, Russell heated up out of intermission, then absolutely took over down the stretch of a 71-61 Rhode Island win.

Russell scored 14 of the Rams’ last 16 points in a game where the host Hawks held a 10-point lead a few minutes into the second half only to see the visitors clamp down on defense, their star guard hitting every shot that wasn’t falling early on. There were pull-up mid-range jumpers, transition layups, and finally a pair of true dagger 3-pointers –– one from the right wing, one from the left –– which put things to rest in the final few minutes.

“He knew when it was time for him to start coming through and making big shots,” URI coach David Cox said, “and he did that.”

Call it the hoop getting bigger, a hot streak, a zone. Whatever you want. The result is the same: all of a sudden, there’s just no stopping Fatts Russell.

“It’s just a feeling, you know?” Russell tried again to explain. “There’s been games where I made two or three shots in a row, (where) I didn’t play well in the game, but there’s been times where I missed five shots in a row and then got hot. It’s just a feeling, I can’t really get a grasp on it.”

Russell finished with 25 points on 10-of-21 shooting, surpassing the 1,000-point mark midway through his junior season. It was the continuation of a season that saw him averaging 19.2 points entering Wednesday night, good for third in the A-10; his 5.2 assists per outing were fifth in the league. He also entered the evening tops in the country in steals per game (3.4), just ahead of another Philly guard, Samford’s Josh Sharkey (Archbishop Carroll).

In a city that prides itself on “Philly guards,” there perhaps hasn’t been a more prototypical Philly guard over the last 10 years than Russell, who starred at Public League powerhouse Imhotep Charter under Andre Noble before heading up to Kingston to shine on a bigger stage. 

Talented? Sure, there’s no denying the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder has the skills –– the ball-on-a-string handle, the touch to pull up and knock down shots from all over the court, the quickness and energy that makes him one of the best on-ball defenders around.

And of course, he possesses the most important quality: the toughness that’s a calling card of the City of Brotherly Love’s best scorers, that Iverson-esque willingness to throw his body around, the unrelenting attack in the open court.

“That’s Fatts, though, the ultimate competitor,” Cox said. “Big-shot taker, big-shot maker.”

“I’ve always wanted to have that type of confidence on the floor,” the Rams’ second-year coach added. “It’s a unique thing, not many people have it. He’s an alpha.”

Russell’s performance on Wednesday was certainly reminiscent of his Imhotep days, where he became the all-time leading scorer at a program that’s less than two decades old yet has already developed a sterling reputation for developing Division I talent. While wearing a Panthers uniform, Russell led his team to the Public League and PIAA 4A championship as a senior, displaying the same scoring touch he’s brought to Rhode Island, though there are definite differences in his game and approach.

Russell became Imhotep's all-time leading scorer, helping the Panthers to league and state championships as a senior. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)


“I’m more mature,” Russell said. “I think my body got stronger, mentally I think I’m more of a leader. I was young going into Imhotep, where I was just playing basketball, honestly. But now I know how to lead my guys, take command of a team.”

“I just think he’s maturing about seeing the floor even better than he did,” Noble added. “Some of the passes he’s making now...he’s a better passer than he was as a high school player.”

What hasn’t changed has been Russell’s demeanor –– always affable off the court, with plenty of laughs and smiles throughout his post-game interview –– and the love he’s gotten each time he takes the court in his hometown.

The section behind Rhode Island’s bench was filled with Russell supporters on Wednesday night, and though they were vocal for all the Rams, it was clear who they were truly there to support.

“Most of them are family, some of them are my friends that I have for a lot of years, since middle school,” Russell said. I just felt the love, the energy...I had to play good in front of them.”

Wednesday night’s game wasn’t the first time Russell had played back within the ‘215’ limits since his college career began in the fall of 2018. He dropped 41 points in last season’s trip to Hawk Hill, scoring the final 19 points of the Rams’ 86-85 OT win, and has also played a game at La Salle each of his first two seasons. 

But it was the first time he had a former Imhotep Charter teammate on the other side: St. Joe’s freshman Chereef Knox, a two-year teammate of Russell’s in a Panther uniform. Another former ‘Tep teammate, Dahmir Bishop, is sitting out after transferring to St. Joe’s from Xavier. 

Afterwards they all caught up, Bishop and Russell sharing more than a few big laughs during a lengthy post-game discussion that also included several other former ‘Tep hoopers.

“Oh yeah, it’s different,” Russell said. “It was fun, it was all love going against them.”

The Rams are 11-5 (3-1) on the season after toppling St. Joe’s, but their record belies a tough non-conference slate. Rhode Island’s five losses have come against four teams ranked in the top 77 on KenPom (including three teams No. 31 or higher), a road loss to No. 209 Brown the lone exception. 

Picked fourth in the A-10 preseason poll, Rhody has what it takes to make a run at its third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years, the previous two coming under current UConn head coach Dan Hurley. Russell is their leading scorer, their leading assist-getter, their go-to bucket-getter down the stretch –– and if they're going to go Dancing in March, he's going to be a major reason why.

“We’re playing for something big, I feel like we’re in the right position to get to the tournament, a couple more wins and we should be in position,” Russell said. “This loss would have hurt us, and throughout the huddle you heard that, from the coaches, to the players...we’re playing for something bigger.”

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