WASHINGTON, D.C. – A huge lead was crumbling right before VCU’s eyes. Their once comfortable margin had been whittled to six. George Washington was pushing the Rams to the ropes. This isn’t exactly the situation in which you’d call on an 18-percent career 3-point shooter.
Don’t tell Darius Theus that. The Rams’ shifty junior point guard stroked a clutch 3-pointer to keep the Colonials at bay with 4:52 left and followed with a conventional three-point play moments later to help spur VCU’s 75-60 win at the Verizon Center in the BB&T Classic.
VCU built a 19-point first half lead when shot a blistering 9-of-15 from 3-point range, but pesky George Washington began chipping away early in the second half. The Rams saw GW pull within 62-56 on back-to-back layups by the Colonials’ Aaron Ware and Lasan Kromah and were desperate for a big play.
On the ensuing sequence, VCU freshman Briante Weber drove the lane. As the defense collapsed, Weber spotted Theus unguarded in the left corner. Theus, who had already hit one triple in the game, buried the wide-open look in front of the Rams’ bench.
“That’s just my teammates having confidence in me and coach also having confidence in me,” said Theus, who had hit just 12-of-67 career 3-pointers prior to Sunday, including 2-of-13 this season. “Briante did a good drive and everybody sunk in on him and he kicked it out to me and everybody has confidence in me shooting the ball…and I just made a play for the team.”
The Colonials answered quickly when Ware drove and scored on the very next play. This time, Theus went to his more tried and true method, darting hard inside the George Washington defense to score a layup and draw a foul on Kromah with 3:56 remaining. Theus’ free throw widened the VCU lead to 68-58, and the Colonials never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Theus has been effective for the Rams as a slashing point guard who operates primarily inside of 15 feet. While he’s not going to make anybody forget the sweet stroke of B.A. Walker or Jamal Shuler, Theus’ shooting has showed signs of progress in his third season. The 6-foot-3 Theus, who became a full-time starter this year following the graduation of Joey Rodriguez, hit 3-of-5 field goals Sunday and is shooting .476 (30-of-63) this season.
“He’s definitely a guy who’s better driving the ball than shooting it from the outside,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “But he’s worked extremely hard on his shooting in the offseason. He got thousands and thousands of extra shots after practice and outside practice. It pays off.”
Just then, Theus, who finished with 10 points and 5 assists, walked into the interview room and Smart turned to him and said, “D, if you have an open shot and you like it…”
Smart didn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t have to. He’s seen enough from Theus in practice and in Sunday’s game to believe that if the Rams need a big shot from their junior floor general, they can expect a positive result.
That’s not to say Theus is going to get the “neon green” light that Smart endorsed for Troy Daniels before the season. Both Theus and Smart know the Rams are better off when Theus is driving and creating for his teammates.
“Two threes is about how many he should attempt,” Smart said of Theus, who was 2-of-2 from that range Sunday. “No more than that.”
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Bradford Burgess led all scorers with 24 points in Sunday’s win and appears to have comfortably distanced himself from a slow start to the 2011-12 season.
In his last four games, Burgess has scored 16, 18, 15 and 24 points, respectively, and is showing why a number of voters picked him as their CAA Preseason Player of the Year. Burgess hit 8-of-15 field goals Sunday, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. He also grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and swiped a steal.
“The difference today was Bradford Burgess,” Smart said. “He played like a senior. He played like a leader and made seemingly every big shot for us and that really allowed us to keep the lead and extend the lead at the end.”
Burgess’ season opened with an 0-of-12 shooting debacle against Saint Francis (Pa.). He also struggled at times during VCU’s 1-2 trip to the Charleston Classic. Prior to the season, Smart spoke of his desire to get Burgess 14-15 shots a game. Sunday marked the second time, including VCU’s Nov. 29 trip to No. 13 Alabama, that Burgess had taken at least 15 shots in a game this year.
In his last four games, Burgess is averaging 18.3 points and shooting .451 (23-of-51) from the floor.
Following three seasons in the shadows of players like Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders and Jamie Skeen, it’s clear that Burgess is the brightest star on this year’s squad. Against George Washington, he showed why, burying several critical second-half baskets as VCU fought off a Colonials’ rally.
“I had a lot of wide-open shots and I just knocked them down,” said Burgess. “Once I got it going I just tried to stay aggressive and assertive the rest of the way.”
POINT OF CONTENTION
The Rams have struggled at times this season when Theus has been out of the game. Much of that can be blamed on youth. VCU’s back-up point guard options include freshmen Weber and Teddy Okereafor, as well as sophomore Rob Brandenberg.
However, when Theus picked up his second foul with 12:36 remaining in the first half and the score tied at 16-16 the Rams performed admirably.
With Theus on the bench, Weber, Brandenberg and Okereafor all took turns at the point as VCU pieced together a 21-6 run over the next nine minutes. The Rams actually pushed their lead to as much as 43-24 late in the half.
“We have two freshmen point guards that back Darius up and they haven’t played a lot of minutes because Darius plays so many minutes, but I thought they did a good job of spelling him,” Smart said. “I didn’t think we could afford for him to pick up a third foul, and we were playing well with those guys in, so we just kept rolling.”
VCU hit a season-high 12-of-24 from 3-point range Sunday. In the last two games, the Rams are 22-of-48 (46 percent) from long distance… The Rams also blocked a season-high six shots, including three by sophomore Juvonte Reddic and two from Burgess… Junior Troy Daniels hit 3-of-7 from 3-point range against the Colonials. He has 21 treys this season, surpassing his previous career high of 18, set last season… VCU is now 2-0 at the BB&T Classic (def. Maryland in 2008), 3-0 against George Washington all-time and is 12-3 against the Atlantic 10 since the 2004-05 season.