RICHMOND, Va. – If you turned on Thursday’s VCU-Saint Joseph’s game and felt like you were watching an instant classic from some March of yesteryear, don’t worry, you weren’t the only one. This was a March appetizer on a January plate.
What you were actually witnessing was just another day in the life of the rough-and-tumble Atlantic 10 Conference, 22nd-ranked VCU’s new hoops home. This probably won’t be the last one of these. There are very few pushovers in one of America’s deepest leagues, and there are apparently no off nights in this 16-team gauntlet. While the Colonial Athletic Association was often a caste system of haves and have-nots, the A-10 feels like a balanced free-for-all.
What we learned from the Rams’ heart-pounding, how-did-they-do-it 92-86 overtime victory, in addition to expect more white-knuckle barnburners, was that VCU (15-3, 3-0 A-10) is also up to the challenge offered by the A-10.
When the Rams’ backs were against the wall, they found an answer. When they needed to counterpunch, and counterpunch, and counterpunch they did. When they needed something miraculous, they got it. It wasn’t perfect. Saint Joseph’s (9-6, 1-2 A-10) hit 9-of-22 threes and shot 52 percent for the game, but it was enough.
“If you want to win a conference you have to win games like this,” said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. “Not every game is a masterpiece.”
After nearly 40 minutes of prize-fight quality back-and-forth action, Troy Daniels pulled the Rams’ off the ropes with a 3-pointer from the corner with 13.8 seconds left in regulation to trim a 79-75 Saint Joseph’s lead to a single point. It was his only field goal of the evening.
Then, after the Hawks’ Ronald Roberts missed the second of two free throws, Darius Theus – he of the career performance of 22 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers – raced down court, drove the lane and scored a right-handed layup to tie the game at 80-all with 6.8 seconds left.
In overtime, a supercharged sellout crowd – the 29th straight for VCU – erupted when Treveon Graham’s four-point play pushed the Rams to an 86-80 advantage with 3:27 to play. Saint Joseph’s meanwhile, appeared to succumb to VCU’s chaotic style of play and deeper bench. The Hawks committed turnovers on their first two possessions of the extra period and never recovered.
Thursday was a test of wills against the A-10 Preseason favorite, a team that includes at least one future NBA Draft pick in C.J. Aiken and several other all-league types. It’s something the Rams are going to have to get accustomed to. Every night is a potential upset. While the jump to the A-10 is widely considered a positive for VCU, there’s still the task of playing a higher level of competition, and actually winning, to deal with.
“One of the great things about moving to this league was, there’s going to be plenty of opportunities like this and you’ve got to step up and find a way to win,” Smart said. “It’s a double-edged sword because you’re playing a really good team, so it’s not like you can just roll out there and they’re going to give you the game.”
Throughout non-conference play, aside from close losses to ranked opponents Duke, Missouri and Wichita State, VCU made the game look easy. The Rams went 12-3 in non-league play and won by an average of nearly 20 points. They demoralized East Tennessee State by 51, they overpowered Alabama by 26, they bulldozed Western Kentucky and Winthrop by 30-plus. Even wins over ranked Memphis and well-regarded Belmont came by double digits.
It’s pretty clear the A-10 schedule is a different animal. The Rams are 3-0 in league play, but each win was a grind. Although the Rams topped Dayton 74-62, for more than 30 minutes it was a toss-up game. Days later, VCU had to battle defending league champion St. Bonaventure for 40 minutes in Olean, N.Y., one of the league’s most trying outposts. And then there was Thursday’s if-you-missed-it-you’re-sorry knock-down, drag-out donnybrook.
“We’re getting a heck of an introduction to the Atlantic 10 with these last three games, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping,” Smart said.
Buckle up. It’s going to be one heck of a ride.