SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Dan Hurley stole an occasional glance at the raucous Rhode Island section and realized just how much this NCAA Tournament means to a starved program, and to an entire state that loves its basketball even if far more under the radar than so many of the others featuring powerhouse programs.
Who could blame them? Back in the tournament for the first time in 18 years, these Rams are on a roll they hope lasts a little longer.
Jeff Dowtin scored a career-high 23 points with a perfect day at the free-throw line, upstart Rhode Island answered every threat and the Rams ran right into the next round of the NCAA Tournament by stunning cold-shooting No. 6 seed Creighton 84-72 on Friday in an opener of the Midwest Region.
"The emotion from them, it almost felt like 18 years' worth of excitement, and they really inspired the guys," Hurley said.
Kuran Iverson scored 17 points and Hassan Martin had 12 points and eight rebounds as 11th-seeded Rhode Island (25-9) earned its ninth straight victory. The program won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since advancing to the Elite Eight and losing to Stanford in 1998.
Ronnie Harrell Jr. scored a career-high 15 points in Creighton's 40 percent shooting day when little went right — like all the missed layups.
Hurley couldn't wait to build happier memories in Sacramento, where his older brother Bobby survived a life-threatening car wreck as an NBA rookie with the Kings in December 1993. His team hit the court for loose balls, crashed the boards with energy and found a way to withstand every spurt by the Bluejays (25-10).
The Rams made a lot of free throws, too.
E.C. Matthews coolly converted two chances from the line with 2:32 and made all 10 of his free throws on his way to 16 points. Dowtin also hit all 10 from the line as Rhode Island went an impressive 28-of-31 on free throws in all.
Oh yes, and Bobby Hurley, the Arizona State coach, was there in the stands at Golden 1 Center.
Creighton's Khyri Thomas stole the ball from Jarvis Garrett and hit Harrell for a one-handed slam with 8:55 to play that trimmed Rhode Island's lead to 53-48.
But Creighton missed key chances, including 7-footer Justin Patton's failed put-back try from close range after he rebounded a three-point try by Toby Hegner.
Patton missed seven of his first nine shots before a late dunk before halftime. He scored five straight points to pull Creighton within 33-26 at halftime.
"We really needed to play defensively in the second half like we did in the first half and play offensively in the first half like we did in the second half," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "Obviously we didn't have our 'A' game, and to win today we were going to need that."