WASHINGTON — No. 25 Rhode Island's Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament opener provided a new test for a team that largely dominated its league: a chance to bounce back from a losing streak.
The top-seeded Rams met the challenge, fending off VCU 76-67 in the quarterfinals Friday as it began its tournament defense.
"We really hadn't had adversity in terms of losing two in a row and having to respond," coach Dan Hurley said. "Then losing two in a row and having to respond against VCU in D.C., with a ton of pressure on you to bounce back and show who you are. I just think it was exactly the type of game we needed."
Jeff Dowtin scored 18 points and Jared Terrell added 16 as Rhode Island (24-6) advanced to the semifinals, where it will face Saint Joseph's on Saturday.
Justin Tillman had 23 points and 15 rebounds for eighth-seeded VCU (18-15), which lost to Rhode Island in the conference tournament for the second consecutive season.
VCU will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
"The biggest thing this year is we're not tough enough, we're not strong enough," first-year coach Mike Rhoades said. "We have a big offseason ahead of us. . We have a ways to go, but I love that challenge and our guys will love that challenge."
It wasn't an easy afternoon for Rhode Island, which won its first 13 Atlantic 10 games before dropping three of its last five regular-season contests. After building a 9-point lead in the first 11 minutes, Rhode Island held a 36-33 edge at the break after initially struggling when VCU — a program built on pairing pressure with a man-to-man defense — surprisingly switched to zone.
VCU led 59-58 when Dowtin hit a 3-pointer to put Rhode Island ahead for good with more than five minutes to play. He added another basket and a vital rebound moments later to help keep VCU from reclaiming the lead.
Dowtin had 13 assists and only one turnover during Rhode Island's three-game A10 Tournament run last year, but his scoring responsibilities have increased this season. He shot 7 of 10 against VCU.
"March is when the good players really step up and make their game just grow even more," Dowtin said. "Last year was kind of a coming out party for me. I just love March. The best players come out and do what they have to do to win, and I felt like I did that today."
Stanford Robinson's 3-pointer with 2:34 remaining pushed Rhode Island's advantage to 66-59. VCU never cut the margin to less than five the rest of the way.
Rhode Island: Hurley's team still has a chance to modestly improve its seeding over the weekend as it chases its second consecutive Atlantic 10 title.
Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams had their shortest conference tournament stay in a decade. VCU had reached its league title game in seven consecutive seasons and had played at least three conference tournament games every year since 2009.
Rhode Island became only the fourth No. 1 seed to reach the Atlantic 10 semifinals in the last eight years. Only one No. 1 seed in that span — eventual champion Saint Louis in 2013 — reached the title game.
Rhode Island: The Rams will meet fourth-seeded Saint Joseph's in the semifinals. The Hawks drubbed Rhode Island 78-48 on Feb. 27.
Virginia Commonwealth: The season could be over for the Rams, who are unlikely to land an NIT berth. Rhoades said he had not discussed participating in other tournaments with athletic director Ed McLaughlin.