CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Treveon Graham has scored 832 points in his 74 games as a Ram, and he’s a safe bet for many, many more, but VCU fans are going to savor these three for a while.
Graham scored 22 points Tuesday night, including a lightning bolt 3-pointer from NBA range with 1.4 seconds left to give the 14th-ranked Rams a 59-56, meat grinder road victory at 25th-ranked Virginia.
It’s a shot, and a win, that will likely echo for years in Richmond. But beyond where the moment ranks for VCU fans in the annals, it has immediately become an important victory for this team; one that showcased the Rams’ potential, and one that could pay dividends down the road.
In a season where already much has been expected of the Rams (see their No. 14 national ranking), this was an early delivery on that promise. Although just the second game of the season, this contest, played before a crowd of nearly 14,000, held March-Madness, title-fight intensity. Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart may try to pump the brakes on the excitement over what is a single, November victory, but regardless, Tuesday’s win will remain notable.
This is the type of game critics said VCU couldn’t win. They said that the Rams’ up-tempo, chaotic Havoc style couldn’t translate against a team like Virginia. The Cavaliers, with their Pack Line defense and deliberate motion offense, were the kind of match-up problem that was supposed to be able to stop Havoc. And it did, for the most part.
But that’s kind of the point.
While the Rams did force 19 turnovers and occasionally pushed the tempo, this game had Virginia’s footprints all over it; the pace, the physicality. With the tone of the game in the Cavaliers’ favor, the Rams’ troubles seemed to multiply. VCU was on the road, against one of the ACC’s top teams, in brutal foul trouble nearly from the opening tip, and missed nine of 15 free throws. There was enough adversity to sink an aircraft carrier. Instead of folding under the weight of all that pressure, all those negative outcomes, the Rams snatched a victory that may spur as much growth as it revealed.
“Virginia does this to a lot of people. It’s why they’re so good on the defensive end. They take you out of what you’re trying to do,” Smart said. “Outrebounded by 13, they shot twice as many free throws as us, and we shot it poorly from the line, so there’s no question, to be able to come up with a big win like this on the road, at a top-25 program, with those things that didn’t go our way, I think it says a lot about these guys.”
VCU was 1-4 last season when scoring less than 60 points. Those games included losses to eventual Final Four team Wichita State, to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game, and to Michigan in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, games that separated a very good VCU season from an unforgettable one.
But it was different this time around, in large part because Graham, the only Ram in double-figures, was a difference-maker. As it became apparent the game would be won the halfcourt, the worth of Graham’s lunchpail dribble drive skill set only became magnified.
After his breakout sophomore campaign in 2012-13, it’s not as if he had much to prove, personally. He’d already established himself as one of the A-10’s best players and earned a spot on the World University Games Team this summer. But Tuesday, Graham showed that he could be a closer, that he could put a team on his back down the stretch.
Down 51-44 with 7:00 left, VCU turned to its rugged junior forward. It was his heroics, and that of seemingly unflappable freshman Jordan Burgess, that wrestled this win away from Virginia. Including his game-winner, Graham scored 10 of VCU’s final 15 points. Burgess, meanwhile, buried a crucial 3-pointer from the right corner with 2:16 left that pulled the Rams within one at 55-54. With 1:17 left, Graham gave VCU a 56-55 lead when he hit a running floater from the right side of the key.
“I was just thinking that it was close to the end of the game, and that I needed to pick it up,” he said. “I was getting tired, but I just used that as motivation, and just attacked the basket and finished.”
On the final play, with the score tied at 56-all, Graham set a screen, then sagged off to the left wing as senior Rob Brandenberg drove right, then kicked to ball out to him with about three seconds left. Although Graham was a good three steps outside the arc, he gathered himself without hesitation and canned a long 3-pointer over UVA’s London Parrantes that sent shockwaves back to Richmond and cast a pall over a nearly sellout crowd at Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena.
“When I got the ball back, I knew there were only three seconds left,” Graham would later recall. “I take those kind of throwback shots every day in practice. I was confident enough to know if Rob would throw it back, I would have made it.”
The glow of the Rams’ win over the Cavaliers will shine brighter and longer for VCU’s fans than it will for Smart and his team. The season is just underway, albeit to a rousing start. There is so much work to be done.
“It’s so early in the season,” Smart said. “Whether or not we won tonight, we were going to need to go back to Richmond and get better. That’s where we are. We’ve got a game on Saturday and another opportunity to go out and improve and then from there, keep getting better.”
If Tuesday was any indication, there’s already been plenty of growth.