RICHMOND, Va. – VCU had been so effective during its eight-game win streak that the Rams hadn’t played a close game since November. Everything worked. They were turning the opposition over at obscene rates, bombing away from beyond the 3-point line, rebounding effectively, you name it. The only edges the Rams weren’t able to sand smooth were the ones that dictate how to win close games.
But Saturday, as uneasy as it was to sweat out a close one, the Rams got the chance to see how they’d respond when everything didn’t go their way, when they had to make plays down the stretch. So sue them if the 59-55 win over gritty Lehigh wasn’t a cruise-control special, but it was probably a necessary evil.
It’s been an all-or-nothing proposition for VCU. Its previous 11 wins had all come by double figures, while its three losses were all by 10 points or less. In losses to Wichita State and Missouri, the games were decided by a single possession. That’s one stop, one bucket when it counts, a couple of free throws under duress.
There wasn’t much left for VCU to gain from another lob-sided win. Sure, everybody enjoyed the Rams’ 51-point pasting of East Tennessee earlier this week, but what Shaka Smart needed to know was how his team would respond in critical moments, when the game was on the line. This time around, the Rams answered the call. With the VCU’s first foray into Atlantic 10 Conference beginning Wednesday against Dayton, Smart had to find out if his team was ready for white-knuckle moments.
“I thought that was exactly the type of game we needed going into Atlantic 10 play,” Smart said. “We all like to win by a lot, and it looks good on the stat sheet, but we haven’t had a close game since Nov. 24. It was good to have an experience like that.”
Dreadful 3-point shooting (5-of-27), so-so rebounding and foul trouble were all major contributors to the Rams’ razor-thin, 52-51 lead with 2:34 remaining. At that point, the tone and feel of the game wasn’t too dissimilar from the Rams’ 53-51 loss to Wichita State on Nov. 13. But what VCU didn’t do that night, make free throws, get stops, hit clutch shots, it did Saturday.
Troy Daniels buried a 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:53 remaining to extend the Rams’ lead to 55-51. An Anthony D’Orazio layup pulled the Mountain Hawks (9-4) within 55-53, but VCU forced a steal and blocked two 3-point attempts on Lehigh’s next three possessions. In the meantime, senior Darius Theus and sophomore Treveon Graham combined to knock down 4-of-4 from the free throw line. Free throw shooting has been a bugaboo for the Rams much of the season, but VCU finished 10-of-11 from the charity stripe Saturday, including 8-of-8 in the final six minutes.
“In the A-10 we may have a lot of close games, and our past few games have been 20-point blowouts, maybe, and tonight it was real good for us to show that we can play good down the stretch, and we all need each other to win, and it’s a team effort, and I think that’s what helps us a lot. Down at the end of the game when someone needs to make a play I feel like we’ve got the guys that can do it,” Theus said.
The billed match-up of VCU’s “Havoc” against the national scoring leader C.J. McCullom turned out to be a non-event. McCullom struggled in 15 first-half minutes and was 0-of-5 from the floor. He limped off the court late in the half with a left foot injury and did not return.
Despite the loss of the potential NBA-lottery pick McCullom, one that drew 31 scouts to the Verizon Wireless Arena, Lehigh actually played better Saturday after McCullom’s injury. When McCullom exited the game with 5:27 left in the first half, Lehigh trailed 25-17. But without their star, the Mountain Hawks closed the half on a 13-4 run to grab a 30-29 halftime lead. It was the first time the Rams had trailed at the break since Nov. 24 against Missouri.
In McCullom’s absence, seniors Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner, sturdy pieces of Lehigh’s NCAA Tournament upset of Duke last year, held the Mountain Hawks together. Although the Rams forced 22 Lehigh turnovers, the Mountain Hawks packed the lane and smothered Daniels for much of the game. Even though the Rams were getting extra possessions, they were unable to convert many of them.
VCU’s five 3-pointers were its fewest since Dec. 1 against Belmont, and its 36-percent shooting was its worst in 10 games. But in the end, the Rams are a team that wants to hang their hats on defense, and it was defense that secured the win. The Rams limited Lehigh to 38 percent shooting and outscored Lehigh 19-8 off turnovers. More importantly, they got stops when they absolutely had to.
“The past few games we kind of breezed through,” Daniels said. “Defense wasn’t really the key those games, but it was in this game right here, and we’re definitely going to need it going into the A-10, so, we’ll be ready.”