“How about Rose Thrill, man?” asked Rams Head Coach Keith Urgo following Fordham’s fifth straight conference win.
From the opening tip on Tuesday night, the crowd in Rose Hill made their presence known. While the energy amongst the 1,800 fans in attendance no doubt emanated from the left baseline student section dubbed “The Herd,” those in the sideline sections couldn’t help but amplify it further. No stranger to playing in loud environments, the Saint Louis Billikens, who entered the game 7-1 in A-10 play, quickly went to work.
While back and forth at first, with Fordham succeeding in some early defensive mismatches, Saint Louis gradually took control of the paint. Leading the effort in this strategy was Senior Forward Francis Okoro. Putting his strength and mobility to full use, Okoro had no problem backing into the hoop on Fordham defenders, either finishing with a hook shot, or frequently pivoting directly under the basket for an underhanded layup. At halftime, Okoro led all SLU scorers with 13 points, shooting 6-6 from the field. At the half, 26 of Saint Louis’ 36 points were scored in the paint, compared to 12 of Fordham’s 31.
“I gotta give credit to Okoro. It [the crowd] didn’t seem to bother him as much as anybody else,” Urgo said, highlighting the poise with which Saint Louis under Travis Ford has played for many years in this league. “Credit to Travis Ford. Unbelievable staff, unbelievable coach. They brought it to us in the first half.”
Despite that poise, as well as a 22-18 advantage in the rebounding department, Saint Louis never could run away with the lead before halftime, only getting up by as much as 7 in the first. Making a few defensive adjustments, Fordham was able to lock down most players around Okoro, forcing iso and severely limiting the impact of Billikens stars such as Yuri Collins. Currently leading the A-10 in assists by a wide margin, Collins was limited to just 1 the entire game, scoring 8 points and committing 4 turnovers.
Offensively, despite a quiet night from three, Fordham kept margins slim by finding plenty of backdoor buckets, drawing trips to the line (6-8 FT shooting in the first), and scoring in transition. As Rostik Novitskyi and Abdou Tsimbila got more comfortable guarding Okoro, these hard-fought buckets shifted the ebb and flow of SLU’s lead from the 3-5 point range to the 1-3 point range. According to Darius Quisenberry, who matched Okoro’s 13 points in the first half, the slight momentum shift in Fordham’s favor towards the end of the first was due to this uptick in their physicality.
“We try to bring the physicality every game,” Quisenberry explained. “That’s our style of play, and they’ve got to match us.”
Entering the second half down 4, Fordham’s top priority became increasing their on-ball pressure, isolating Billikens ballhandlers and closing off any lanes for them to execute cuts or passes. At the center of this pressure was Kyle Rose. A frequent starter this season, Rose has come off the bench in each of the Rams’ past four games to provide a defensive spark. Statistically speaking, the strategy has worked, with Rose recording a respective +/- of 18 and 14 against George Washington and SLU, while scoring 0 and 3 points in each game.
“I take pride in defense a lot, and I also just come out giving 110% and executing the game plan that my coaches have for us,” Rose explained. “Coach Urgo does a good job putting me in positions to guard players like Yuri Collins and frustrate him. With the help of Abdou Tsimbila and people like that, I think we did a really good job today.”
Abdou Tsimbila, who has also come off the bench in recent games, provided a big flourish on both ends of the floor midway through the second. Intercepting an errant Yuri Collins pass, Tsimbila took the ball up the court solo in transition for a big jam, then followed it up on the next possession with an emphatic block on Javonte Perkins.
“That’s all Abdou came out and did, and focused on, was his defense,” Rose said. “By doing that, the basketball gods reward you.”
That forced frustration Rose highlighted has been the core tenet of Fordham’s defense. According to Coach Urgo, as seen with players like Yuri Collins on Tuesday, but also with players like James Bishop, who scored 11 in the first half and 4 in the second for GW last Saturday, shifting production off of the primary ballhandler has been Fordham’s biggest defensive strength.
“That’s our goal, to wear teams down, specifically [to wear down] a guy like Yuri Collins, or Okoro,” Urgo said. “[We have to] wear those guys down with our depth and our pressure over the course of 40 minutes.”
After Okoro got into some early foul trouble, sitting for a large middle portion of the second half, Fordham’s war of attrition game plan helped close the gap. Just after the under-12 media timeout, Rostik Novitskyi took advantage of an Okoro-less post, scoring two consecutive buckets down low to get Fordham’s deficit to just 1. A Will Richardson 3-pointer would tie the game at 51, erasing a SLU lead that began at 6-4, but Collins and Okoro would score two straight field goals to put the Billikens back up 4.
Closing the gap once again, Elijah Gray would give the Rams their first lead since the opening minutes of the game, slamming home an assist from Khalid Moore to put Fordham up 56-55. As soon as Gray took flight for his dunk, Rose Hill Gym exploded once again. The next three minutes and 14 seconds were fueled by the excitement of the crowd as both teams traded bucket after bucket. Okoro, back off the bench for crunch time, scored 6 points in this stretch, 4 of them via free throws.
According to Kyle Rose, the longest tenured Ram, the emotional fuel the Rose Hill crowd provided was unlike anything he had ever seen in his time at Fordham.
“I’ve been here for four years, so to see that crowd and to have that atmosphere, it shows that we’re building something special.”
After a Darius Quisenberry steal leading to 2 made free throws put Fordham up by 4 points with 1:17 left to go, late fouling and 3 more Rams steals helped seal the Rams’ first win over Saint Louis since February 18th, 2017. Quisenberry would finish with a game-high 27 points, with Okoro and Moore right behind him with 21 and 20 respectively. With the win, this Fordham team also became the first to win 18 games since the 2006-07 squad.
The Rams pick things back up on Sunday when they head down to Richmond to take on the Spiders.