RICHMOND, Va. – Eight days ago in Norfolk, despite a 13-point road win over Old Dominion, Shaka Smart hardly looked like a coach satisfied with his team’s performance. Smart lamented his team’s inability to hold big leads. He said they lacked a “killer instinct”.
Saturday night, in a 73-54 rout of Alabama, Smart and the Rams found what they were looking for.
VCU overwhelmed Alabama’s guards in the first half with full-court and half-court pressure and forced 13 turnovers on the way to a 33-18 lead. In the second half, the Rams would be tested. The Crimson Tide cut VCU’s lead to 11 points on a Trevor Releford bucket with 16:04 remaining. It was a litmus test. How would the Rams respond?
In similar situations against Old Dominion the Rams built a big lead, only to watch the Monarchs chip away. On Dec. 1 against Belmont, VCU looked unbeatable on the way to an 18-point halftime lead, but allowed the Bruins pull within five points late in the game.
That was not going to happen Saturday night. The Rams staged a 15-4 run in just 2:51, punctuated by back-to-back 3-pointers by Melvin Johnson and Troy Daniels, to blow the game wide open. VCU’s lead would actually reach 26 before Alabama stopped the bleeding. Crimson Tide Coach Anthony Grant, normally intense and animated on the sideline, sat quietly, hands on chin, for much of the rest of the game.
“We had a very good week of practice,” Smart said. “The guys honored the process that we laid out that was going to allow us to win this game and that’s why we were able to win.”
With eight days between games, Smart and his staff had plenty of time (despite finals week) to address VCU’s late-game issues. He credited his team’s work in practice with sharpening its edge.
“We’ve practiced really well over the past week,” he said. “I thought it was one of our more competitive weeks of practice where the black team went at the gold team, and the gold team went at the black team.”
Like anything else, senior Darius Theus says aggressiveness has to be practiced. It’s not something the Rams can just turn on and off.
“If we’re in practice and we’re doing a drill with me and Troy. He can bring it out of me. If me and Melvin are doing a drill, he can bring it out of me,” Theus said. “We’ve just got to compete with each other and bring that instinct out of each other, just bring toughness out of each other.”
Smart believed that when the Rams have held big leads this year, they’ve backed off the accelerator. This week, he says he wanted to drive home the point that the time to ease up is when the clock hits zero, regardless of the lead.
His concern was a valid one. In four of VCU’s last five losses dating back to last season, the Rams have held the lead at some point during the final 2:15. He isn’t just training his team to blow teams out, he’s preparing the Rams to close out opponents when the game is really on the line. To do that, he says VCU needs to keep the pressure on the other team.
“It’s what we do. Our style of play, if we don’t play hard and attack each other in practice or attack the opponent in the game it’s not going to work out very well,” he said.
Prior to Saturday, VCU was outscoring opponents by an average of 11.7 points in the first half, but just 1.3 points in the second. In addition, opposing teams were shooting 48 percent against the Rams in the second half this season. Although the final margin in the second period was four (40-36), much of Alabama’s damage was done with the game well out of reach. The ‘Tide shot 42 percent (10-of-24) after the break.
Senior Troy Daniels, who finished with a team-high 16 points, says the Rams heeded Smart’s call for aggressiveness.
“Just don’t let up,” he said. “Sometimes we get out there with the ball and we just hold it. We stop scoring and stuff like that. We play fast and get it. Sometimes we don’t do that when we’re up by a lot. We need to keep doing that. He emphasized that a lot.
“Winning big is what we want to do, and when we have a team down by 20 we want to keep it there.”