Just as he did last season, Fordham Rams Head Coach Keith Urgo thanked the Rose Hill Gym crowd for their support in his postgame opening statement. On Monday evening, Fordham’s student section dubbed “The Herd” was full more than 20 minutes before tip-off between Fordham’s season opener against Wagner. While the Herd proved last year that they can rattle “Rose Thrill” with just their standard territory on the left baseline, the newly re-opened right baseline section allowed the 1,437 fans in attendance to completely surround the court.
“If it wasn’t as loud and as rowdy [as it was] tonight, I don’t know if we necessarily pull that off,” Coach Urgo explained. “Credit to the energy that they created in that building tonight. Clearly we’re going to need that moving forward every single night [that] we can possibly have a crowd in here.”
A large portion of the student was also in attendance for the Fordham Women’s Basketball season opener earlier that evening, which saw the Rams take down Adelphi 70-43.
While the crowd tried to sway this game in favor of the Rams early on, stifling defense from both teams ensured that this was a low-scoring first half. Neither team provided adequate lanes to drive inside, and scoring on the fast break was nearly impossible. At halftime, both teams combined for just 8 points in transition.
In the first half, Wagner frequently put the ball in the hands of Junior Guard Melvin Council Jr., who shot 5-9 from the field before the break for 12 points. Sometimes in direct response to Fordham’s offensive efforts, Council repeatedly came up with a perfect play to keep the game close. When Abdou Tsimbila scored Fordham’s opening basket on a pick-and-roll feed, Council went end-to-end to for a transition layup. After Romad Dean hit a 3 from the top of the arc to put the Rams up 11-8, Council hit his own deep jumper to tie the game.
In terms of what worked for Fordham early, the Rams used their bench very efficiently. Every player that would hit the floor for Fordham in the whole game got at least two minutes of playing time in the first half, leading to 14 bench points at the break. Since the lanes to the basket were closed, Fordham frequently looked to drive, kick out, and shoot either a mid-range shot or three-pointer. When the Rams could get inside, ballhandlers like Antrell Charlton had to fight through frequent double teams for open looks. Out of the under-8, Charlton drove inside, spun to look for an open pass, and laid it in himself when nothing was available to put the Rams up 21-20.
According to Senior Guard Japhet Medor, the Rams understood the tempo of this game early. If Wagner was going to match Fordham’s patented defensive intensity, Fordham had to adjust.
“Wagner came in here and started playing defense, they came out high as well,” Medor said. “It just made us come up higher, [with] our backs against the wall, and we did what we had to do to come up with the win.
However, as Fordham looked to adjust, their spacing and struggles behind the three point line put the Rams down 8 at the break. At halftime, Fordham was 3-13 from beyond the arc. Second-chance opportunities were a difference maker as well early, as Wagner scored 6 points off of 7 offensive rebounds. While Fordham also tallied 7 offensive boards, they were scoreless on put-back opportunities in the first 20 minutes.
While Wagner held a firm lead in the opening minutes of the second half, Fordham began to chip away by double teaming Council and improving their inside scoring. While the Rams created plenty of opportunities for themselves on the defensive end, turnovers continued to halt their momentum. Fordham committed 5 of their 6 second half turnovers before the under-12 media timeout. Japhet Medor was a major facilitator in closing the gap early in the second, scoring 12 points off of 4-6 shooting in the period.
While Medor played floor general for Fordham’s push out of the under-8, it was sophomore forward Elijah Gray who fueled a key stretch for the Rams. Down 50-45, Gray sank an open look three (assisted by Medor) to get the Rams within a bucket. As he got back on defense, Gray intercepted an errant Rahmir Moore pass, bringing it back Fordham’s way in the fast break. A bounce pass assist to Will Richardson would tie the game at 50, ending the lead Wagner had held since the first half. A few possessions later, and Gray would give Fordham a 54-52 lead on a put-back tip-in, sending the Herd into a frenzy.
“[After] I hit the shot, ‘boom-next play.’ I hit it. Whatever. Move on,” Gray said while recounting his thoughts during the sequence. “My mindset then was just get a stop. I feel like I read the play pretty well. I knew he was going to pass the ball, so I read it, saw his eyes, jumped out advanced the ball. Simple basketball.”
In just the second half, Gray tallied 10 points shooting a perfect 3-3 from the field.
While Fordham was able to get their lead up to 60-56 with 31 seconds remaining, a Tyje Kelton fast break layup brought the game within 2. With the game on the line, Rahmir Moore drove in from the right side for a game-tying shot, only for Abdou Tsimbila to swat it away. However, this play would be ruled goaltending after an extended review, forcing OT.
In overtime, it was once again Gray and Medor who took over offensively. Dribbling in from the top of the key, Medor was able to draw a quick double team and rocket a chest pass into an open Gray for an emphatic dunk that put the Rams up 65-62. A Medor 3-pointer on a subsequent possession would seal the opening night win for Fordham, 68-64.
Medor finished as the game’s leading scorer with 17 points, while Elijah Gray tallied 16, a career high. Medor would also finish with 3 blocks.
When asked about Gray’s performance, Coach Urgo attributed his contribution to the win largely to his growth during the offseason, as well as his commitment to the team.
“He’s understood [that] the way you get on the floor for us is to defend and rebound,” Urgo said of Gray. “If he had made those threes, but then given up offensive rebounds, or easy drives to the basket, or not been in the right position, he would have been yanked out just like everybody else.”
With the win against Wagner, the Rams secured their third consecutive victory in a season opener. Fordham returns to the Rose Hill Gym on Saturday afternoon to take on Cornell.