BROOKLYN, N.Y. – As Shaka Smart spoke, his voice betrayed him. After three emotional Atlantic 10 Tournament games, it cracked and wheezed. Much like his team, Smart left everything, including his voice, on the Barclays Center floor.
The Rams stellar inaugural A-10 season came to a close Sunday in an emotional 62-56 loss to Saint Louis in the league’s championship game. VCU, which had been overrun by a poised Billikens team in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, battled until the final horn. The Rams refused to let Saint Louis walk to a title with a repeat performance.
But an A-10 title was not in the cards for the Rams this year. That honor goes to a tough Saint Louis team that overcame the death of its coach, Rick Majerus, earlier this year and banded together. The Billikens came into the game ranked 16th nationally, and they’re at least that good, if not better. The Rams can keep the chins high.
“We came at them, they took a punch from us. They responded, and that’s why they’re the champions,” said Smart afterwards.
Disappointing as the loss was, the fact that the Rams were in this position to begin with guarantees their 26-8 season doesn’t end here. VCU moved to the A-10 this summer after 17 years in the cozy CAA. While that league floundered this year, the Rams thrived, placing second in what is rated the seventh-best league nationally in RPI. Had the Rams lost in the CAA title game this year, they might be bound for the NIT. Instead, their consolation prize Sunday will be an NCAA bid and the school’s most favorable tournament seed in 28 years. Not bad.
Editor’s note: VCU received the No. 5 seed in the South Region and will meet 12th-seeded Akron on Thursday, March 21 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64
“I’m really proud of our guys for the way we stepped into this league and really competed in the regular season and in the conference tournament,” Smart said. Sunday. “I think if everyone stops for a second and realizes what our guys have done, we went from a league that I believe was the 25th-best league in the RPI this year to a league that’s in the top six or seven conferences in the country, and we finished in the top two.”
Rather than focus on what did or didn’t happen in Sunday’s championship game, Smart was reflective and chose the long view.
“We came very close today to winning the tournament championship,” he said. “That’s a testament to our guys. We didn’t know we were in this league until last summer, and our guys never turned away from the challenge. They stepped up, they battled. They’re in that lockerroom crying right now, but they have nothing to feel sorry about because they battled and fought and honestly, we’re an eyelash away, one or two plays away, from not only at least sharing the title in the regular season, but also winning today.”
Silver linings weren’t the first things on the Rams’ minds after Sunday’s game, however. VCU had overcome a cold-shooting first half and staged a dizzying 13-1 run midway through the second period to pull within 46-45 with 8:52 remaining. After three halves of watching Saint Louis deftly weather VCU’s Havoc, the Rams broke through. Four Saint Louis turnovers keyed VCU’s run and jarred the Billikens’ normally stoic demeanor.
But Saint Louis got critical 3-pointers down the stretch from Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis (twice), to hold off the swarming Rams. Meanwhile, Saint Louis’ defense, the stingiest in the A-10, lived up to its reputation, as the Rams shot .339 (19-of-56) on the day.
“They play aggressive defense, push you out, deny the wings,” said VCU senior Darius Theus. “They pack it in so you won’t get into the lane too much and they just try to speed you up a little bit.”
“We had our style going for parts of the game. We just didn’t have it going for enough of the game,” Smart said. “And to be honest with you, we missed some shots that are pretty good looks that we normally would knock down. We shot a lower percentage. I think Saint Louis certainly deserves some credit for that. All year long they’ve been the best half-court defensive team in the league.”
The Rams know there’s no shame in losing to Saint Louis, but that doesn’t mean Sunday’s defeat didn’t hurt. But later Sunday, Smart and his players will have an opportunity to wipe their hands of Saint Louis and turn the page.
“Yeah. That’s what coach said [to us]. That’s the positive thing that you can bring out of the situation,” said Theus. “We battled through all season to already have that, for us to be in the tournament, but we really wanted this one bad. But that still is a positive of the situation.”
While losing the A-10 title game was the reason for Smart’s long face, it’s VCU’s presence in the league that will also help him feel better by Monday. The Rams are comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, and Smart can point to VCU’s success through the A-10’s brutal gauntlet as the reason why.
“I thought going into the season that this was as deep as any league in the country, and I was wrong. It was deeper than any league in the country,” he said. “The preparation, playing against Saint Louis, teams like Xavier, teams like Butler, La Salle. That’ll really help us going into the tournament.”
The season restarts in a few days.