TITLE GAME LOSS NOT THE ARBITER OF VCU SEASON’S WORTHINESS

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VCU fell to Saint Joseph's Sunday in the A-10 Championship Game, but the Rams are dancing anyway.

VCU fell to Saint Joseph’s Sunday in the A-10 Championship Game, but the Rams are dancing anyway.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Two years ago, this column would have been a eulogy. Today, it’s merely a reminder of how far the VCU program has come and where it’s headed.

VCU suffered a cruel blow Sunday at Barclays Center with a 65-61 loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game. It was a near repeat of 12 months ago, when Saint Louis dealt the Rams a similarly close championship game loss on the same floor.

Emotion caught up to the weight of those two losses Sunday. At the final horn, which cut short VCU’s furious attempt at a comeback, senior Juvonte Reddic crouched down near the VCU basket and buried his head in his shirt. It wasn’t until teammate Jarred Guest and Assistant Coach Mike Rhoades came over to comfort Reddic that he finally left the floor.

It’s understandable that Reddic would be crestfallen. For a second straight year, VCU came within a couple of bounces of a championship. That’s hard to handle, for sure.

But the tonic for what ails Reddic and VCU fans right now should be this: In the two years since the Rams last won a conference championship, the 2012 CAA title, the program has blossomed into a consistent national force. That doesn’t blunt the pain of a championship loss on Sunday, but it does make for a better Monday. That’s because by then, VCU will be making travel arrangements for a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip.

In 2011, VCU had to sweat out the NCAA Selection Show after losing to Old Dominion in the CAA Championship Game. Actually, many of the players didn’t bother to watch the show at all. Today, all they had to worry about was whether or not they needed to pack shorts or fleece. The answer is shorts, by the way, as VCU drew a 5-seed and will play Stephen F. Austin in San Diego Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

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VIDEO: VCU DEFEATS GEORGE WASHINGTON IN A-10 SEMIFINALS

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PRODUCT OF A SYSTEM; COLLECTIVE VCU OVERCOMES INJURY

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VCU banded together to overcome an injury to Melvin Johnson and secure a berth in the A-10 Championship Game.

VCU banded together to overcome an injury to Melvin Johnson and secure a berth in the A-10 Championship Game.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Calling VCU’s style of play “Havoc” may be good marketing, but it’s no façade. There’s substance to this style.

Given its pervasiveness, Havoc has surpassed the individual star power of every Ram to play within it in the last five years under Shaka Smart – save Larry Sanders – because it’s never been about individual talents. It’s a collective, an attacking army on both ends of the floor. You cannot full court press with one player. You cannot trap alone.

It’s one of the reasons that VCU, despite yearly turnover, has been able to achieve an envious level of consistency during Smart’s tenure. It’s why the Rams, despite an injury to one of their most important players, Melvin Johnson, were able to secure a second straight trip to the Atlantic 10 Championship Game with a 74-55 win over George Washington Saturday at Barclays Center. The Rams will meet fourth-seeded Saint Joseph’s, which topped St. Bonaventure in the day’s first semifinal, Sunday at 1 p.m.

This was a sum-of-the-parts win. While VCU can certainly point to Treveon Graham’s 22 points or Briante Weber’s 16-point, 8-assists performance, blindly reading the box score won’t tell the whole story.

Five minutes into the game, Johnson, a Bronx native and the A-10’s Sixth Man of the Year, collapsed and clutched his left knee after attempting to run down a loose ball near midcourt. Johnson did not return to the game, although he emerged from the lockerroom early in the second half and sat on the VCU bench with his left knee in an inflatable cast. He will have an MRI on Monday.

Perhaps inspired by their fallen teammate, the Rams eventually overran the third-seeded Colonials in the final 10 minutes to turn a pressure-packed, back-and-forth battle into a laugher.

“I think the guys were upset, and that really motivated us,” said senior Juvonte Reddic of the Rams’ response to Johnson’s injury. “We played the second half for him. It was just all about him. A lot of the guys were just telling each other, ‘don’t think about yourself, think about somebody else’, and I think a lot of the guys did a good job thinking about somebody else.”

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WEBER’S POWER POINTS FUEL VCU

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Briante Weber scored 18 points Friday to propel VCU past Richmond and into the Atlantic 10 Semifinals.

Briante Weber scored 18 points Friday to propel VCU past Richmond and into the Atlantic 10 Semifinals.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Early in the first half of VCU’s Atlantic 10 Quarterfinal contest with Richmond Friday at Barclays Center, the league honored junior Briante Weber as Defensive Player of the Year with a graphic on the arena Jumbotron.

Below those glowing high-definition screens, Weber was already well on his way to proving he can do more than just defend. The 6-foot-3 guard scored VCU’s first six points Friday and hit his first seven shots of the game to fuel a lob-sided 71-53 victory over the Spiders. With the win, the Rams advance to the A-10 semifinals Saturday afternoon against George Washington, and complete a rare three-game sweep of the crosstown rival Spiders.

Weber scored 16 points in the first half as VCU built a comfortable 38-22 lead and finished with 18 points, five rebounds and two steals. He did it all in an efficient, game-altering 18-minute stint. Behind Weber’s offensive dominance, the Rams overwhelmed the Spiders early and were hardly threatened the rest of the night.

“I just came out with the mindset to attack, because in the prior game [with Richmond], I didn’t get to play that much,” said Weber, who came into Friday averaging 9.1 points per game this season. “So I actually wanted to play this game. So I came out with a chip on my shoulder, and I was just going to attack from the jump.”

Weber knocked down a mid-range jumper on VCU’s first possession, then ripped a steal and raced to a breakaway dunk for a 4-0 lead. A short time later, he was the beneficiary of a Juvonte Reddic offensive rebound, which he finished with a drive and floater. By then, Richmond was already on its heels. Moments later, there was a traditional three-point play, and then a layup. By the time Weber, who entered the game 8-of-37 from three this year, pulled up and hit a trey from the right wing in rhythm to give VCU a 23-13 advantage, two things became obvious. First, Weber was on his way to one of the best offensive nights of his career. Secondly, Richmond was in serious trouble.

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BAND ON A BUS; THE PEPPAS CONQUER MANHATTAN

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We met The Peppas Friday morning and hopped on an open-air tour bus. The band  crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and made its way onto the “Today Show” for the second straight year. Afterwards, we headed to Times Square, where we played outside the “Good Morning America” studio, then through the streets, and onto Madison Square Garden, where some other tournament is going on right now. Finally, we swung over to the iconic New York Public Library, where the band played about six songs and attracted a crowd of a couple hundred before we were shut down by library staffers we can only assume attended Richmond. Here’s a recap:

PEPPAS ON THE TODAY SHOW (AGAIN)

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We rode around all Friday morning with The Peppas. We’ll have our own video from the trip, which included stops all over Manhattan, up later, but here’s the clip of the band crashing the Today Show for the second straight year.

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EDIT: I pulled a bunch of photos from my iPhone and from around the Internet to give you a look at some of the scenes from Friday’s ridealong.

RAMS TAKE DIE KOELNER BIERHALLE

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park-slope-beer-hall-openBROOKLYN, N.Y. – Last year, local pub Die Koelner Bierhalle became the headquarters of Ram Nation North. VCU fans flocked to the neighborhood bar and restaurant to hang out with other VCU fans, watch games and prep for the Atlantic 10 Tournament. KBH, as it is known, became the pregame and postgame spot for Rams fans, and that is expected to continue this year.

On Thursday, we dropped by to see what makes the place so special. If you’re in the neighborhood Friday before (or after) VCU’s game with Richmond, drop by KBH.

VCU TAKES NEW YORK (DAY ONE)

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On Wednesday, we left Richmond and headed up to The Big Apple for the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Mike Voyack and I spent the day trying to capture some of the sights and sounds. Included: Cameo by one VCU player’s parents, The Peppas and a sleeping doctor.

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Here’s a good shot of The Peppas, Gold Rush Dancers and cheerleaders striking a serious pose…ah whatever.

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DROVES OF FANS FUEL RAMS IN BROOKLYN

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VCU fans packed Barclays Center last season as the Rams earned a berth into the Championship Game.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – After a few phone calls and some Internet research, I’ve been able to confirm that there is not, in fact, a VCU satellite campus in the New York metropolitan area.

But you’d have a hard time selling that to impartial observers at Barclays Center during last season’s Atlantic 10 Championship. It seemed as if there were Rams fans everywhere. Official numbers are not available, but anybody with a pulse and a ticket last season could’ve told you that VCU fans outnumbered other schools at the tournament by a wide margin.

They were boisterous, backed by VCU’s dynamic pep band, The Peppas, and they were impressive. VCU fans seemed to embrace the experience more fully than perhaps any other league school.

And it wasn’t just at Barclays Center. VCU fans flocked to Brooklyn in droves, flooding the city with black and gold. Die Koelner Bierhall, a German beer hall practically in the shadow of the arena, became the de facto headquarters for Rams fans. The pep band gallivanted around town in a bus wrapped in VCU graphics and the marketing slogan “Havoc Lives Here”. Normally, that means Richmond, but in March, Havoc was highly mobile. The Peppas also shoehorned their way onto the “Today Show”, blaring their eclectic mix of bombastic tunes from atop the bus. And of course, there was Spike Lee.

The extracurricular events were nice, but the real benefit to VCU fans’ willingness to follow the Rams to the Big Apple was on the court. Players may have been focused on playing the game, but they weren’t wearing blinders and earplugs. They saw the sea of humanity. They heard the brass-based rallying cries. And they say it made a difference.

“We can take a deep breath because we’re not just here by ourselves,” says junior guard Briante Weber. “[It’s] a sign of relief when we see people that come out from Richmond to all the way from wherever we are. It just shows how much our fan base follows us and how much they really love to watch us play and we appreciate it.”

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2014 ATLANTIC 10 TOURNAMENT BRACKET

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2014_MBB_Bracket.xlsx

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