RICHMOND, Va. – In one of its final chances to impress the NCAA selection committee, VCU wore down a sharpshooting Northern Iowa team and grabbed a 77-68 Sears BracketBusters victory Friday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
Despite torrid shooting from the Panthers in the first half, VCU Coach Shaka Smart stuck to his guns defensively and waited for the Rams’ style of play to win out. At first, it looked like Smart’s gamble, which had the Rams ratcheting up their defensive aggressiveness, might prove costly. The Panthers hit 7-of-10 threes in the first half, and nine of their first 13 attempts. But UNI missed its last four from outside and the cumulative effect of 19 turnovers shifted the game back towards VCU.
With five minutes left, the Rams took over. Three days removed from a heartbreaking, buzzer-beating loss at George Mason in which they were unable to shake the Patriots late, VCU turned a 64-62 lead into a nine point win.
“We knew it was a risk to be as aggressive as we were, and they made us pay in the first half, but we thought over the course of 40 minutes out style of play would benefit us and win out and tire them out to some extent and in the second half I think it did,” Smart said.
Despite shooting 56 percent (25-of-45) for the game, Northern Iowa could only manage 24 points in the second half. Then again, it’s tough to score when you don’t have the ball.
Point guard Darius Theus, who is developing a reputation for clutch play in the waning moments of close games, was masterful. The junior from Portsmouth scored seven points, ripped a pair of steals and assisted on a pair of buckets during the final five minutes alone.
Despite Tuesday’s loss, in which George Mason erased a six-point lead in the final minute, Smart said the Rams didn’t place extra emphasis in closing out Friday’s game stronger than usual because it’s always been an area of emphasis.
They could’ve fooled the 7,600 fans in attendance because VCU dropped the hammer on Northern Iowa with conviction, including a critical conventional three-point play by Theus and a couple of monster dunks by Juvonte Reddic in the final 1:41.
“We’ve talked all year long about what we need to do at the end of the game. That’s get stops, rebound, make free throws and our guys did that,” Smart said. “I thought the players were very resilient. Honestly, the person who had the hardest time moving on was me. But the guys were great at leading the way and understanding that the last game was over and we’ve got to move on to what’s next.”
Bradford Burgess has looked every bit as good the last four games as any point in his career. He was fabulous again Friday, scoring 17 points of 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3-point land. He was aggressive, smart and steady.
In the last four games, three VCU wins and one loss by a single point on a 30-foot buzzer beater, Burgess is averaging 19.0 points while shooting .521 (25-of-48) from the floor and .515 (17-of-33) from 3-point range.
STATS AND STUFF
Friday’s game marked the 17th straight sellout for VCU. The Rams’ final regular season game Feb. 25 with George Mason has already been announced a sellout… With 12 steals Friday, the Rams have recorded at least 300 steals in three straight seasons under Smart. The number of 300 steal seasons prior to Smart’s tenure? Zero… VCU is now 5-3 in BracketBusters contests.