It didn’t have to happen. More often than not, it does not happen. College ballplayers return to Philadelphia and try just a little too hard to make it a special night.
Rhode Island point guard Fatts Russell, a top-line Atlantic 10 player as a junior, had made enough magic in past visits to his city. Last season on Hawk Hill, he scored 41. Can’t expect a reprise of that.
First half Wednesday night, it wasn’t happening. Russell was trying to find openings that weren’t there. The rim wasn’t being kind. He ended up on his butt more than the ball found the hoop.
Ryan Daly and the St. Joseph’s Hawks had the better of it, Daly hitting for a six-point halftime lead. Fatts had 2 points, 1 field goal, 8 tries.
Maybe it was all too much, having parents and cousins and old friends going back to middle school and his high school coaches at the game, and even former teammates on the other bench?
“More phone calls — I’ve got to get these tickets,’’ Russell said. “Everybody is calling me, texting me, asking me for tickets. Some people I had to say no, we only have a certain amount of tickets. That kind of hurt. I got most of my family here.”
That, however, was not his first-half problem, Russell explained. It was all basketball by then.
“The first half, I was just trying to figure out the defense,’’ Russell said. “They had a good scheme, where they were just leaving their big men in the paint. I had to figure out ways around that.”
He did, spectacularly. When Russell heated up later on, he decided the game. It was going to take some jump shots for URI. Russell provided them. When he was done, so was St. Joe’s. Russell finished with 25. URI got through, 71-61.
“That’s Fatts … the ultimate competitor,’’ Rhode Island coach David Cox said in front of the visitors’ locker room. “Big-shot taker, big-shot maker.”
“He’s super-confident,’’ said his Imhotep Charter coach, Andre Noble, who had made it into the building. “He was just waiting to get going. He’s that kind of guard, when he gets going.”
Noble was saying this afterward standing in one corner of the building. Cox was in another corner. In between, Russell had come out still in uniform. It was a receiving line of hugs and handshakes and photos and smiles and laughs. A joyous scene.
Not everybody in the building had been there for Fatts, but most everybody left in the building was there for Fatts.
“I felt the love and energy,’’ Russell said later. “I had to play good in front of them. I hadn’t played in front of them in a long time.”
If Russell is the best out-of-town Philly player right now, it’s the result of a couple of things.
He’s a calm floor leader. You can almost see the computer working in his head, assessing odds, deciding if that angled pass is the right one. (It was.) A St. Joe’s big man switched on Russell and he didn’t hesitate, going by him to the rim. Even as his shots didn’t fall, he didn’t have any turnovers in the first half.
That go-by ability is always there, too. At the other end, Russell’s quickness creates anxiety. He’d gone in leading the nation in steals — tied, actually, with another Philly guy, Archbishop Carroll graduate Josh Sharkey at Samford, each grabbing 3.4 a game. For Russell, every opponent’s dribble is an opportunity.
The thread that connects the computer chip and the quickness: his confidence. Rhode Island is in the thick of the A-10 race, now 3-1 and 11-5 overall, with a win at VCU already in the books. Dropping this would have changed things, pushed the Rams back to the middle of the league. Russell said they were playing for something bigger than just winning this game.
Asked about there being no real limit to Russell’s confidence, Cox said, “No, no, no. I mean, I’ve always wanted to have that type of confidence on the floor. It’s a unique thing. Not many people have it. He’s an alpha.”
Russell said he’s more mature than in his Imhotep days. His body has gotten stronger. Mentally, he feels like more of a leader, which isn’t bad since he was most definitely the leader of some powerhouse Imhotep teams that were full of players now in Division I.
“I was young going into Imhotep, just playing basketball, honestly,’’ Russell said. “Now, I know how to lead my guys, take command of my team.”
When he got it going — “I feel like any shot I’m going to throw up, I’m going to make it, honestly,’’ Russell said.
There was a three-pointer, pretty well contested, tying things at 53. Then a fast-break layup. A pull-up 15-footer put the Rams up six, with a little less than six minutes left. Then another pull-up jumper, and another.
His three-pointer on a pull-up effectively decided things, and gave him exactly 1,000 career points. He added another three-pointer, his heat filling the building.
“It’s just something I have in me,’’ Russell said. “I don’t know how to describe it. I really don’t. I can’t really get a grasp on it.”
Russell was asked if they’d gone out right then and played another 40 minutes, how many would he score?