DEFENSIVE DECISION SPARKS VCU PAST ODU

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VCU limited Old Dominion to 35 percent shooting in the second half and overtime of Wednesday's win.

RICHMOND, Va. – I suppose there’s truth in the idea that defense and rebounding are decisions, that they’re more about effort and “want to” than about actual talent. But you can’t tell me that Rosie O’Donnell can guard Candice Parker. I don’t care how hard she tries.

However, it’s true that desire can get you a defensive stop much more often than it can produce a 3-pointer or an exceptional individual offensive play.

VCU has plenty of athleticism and ability, but in the first half of their 76-72 overtime victory over rival Old Dominion, the Rams watched the Lady Monarchs shoot 55 percent.

The Rams (10-5, 3-1 CAA) were slow to get back defensively in transition, and ODU burned them to the tune of an 11-2 advantage in fast break points. When the Lady Monarchs (5-11, 2-2 CAA) weren’t bleeding VCU on the break, they were pounding the ball inside, scoring 24 points in the paint in the first half on the way to a 45-36 lead. Something was missing.

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MCCRAE EMERGING FOR VCU

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One positive development from Thursday’s disappointing 78-77 loss to Richmond was the play of freshman center Aprill McRae.

McRae scored a season-high 13 points and collected 7 rebounds on the night in 34 minutes. She came into the night averaging 2.4 points per game. Making her second consecutive start, the 6-foot-3 Raleigh, N.C. native has active and physical. Four of her rebounds came on the offensive glass.

“She’s going to be very good,” said Richmond Coach Michael Shafer. “I wish she was a senior.”

Unfortunately for Shafer, McRae is a college rookie and just scratching the surface of her potential. Ranked the No. 22 post player in the nation by ESPN Hoopgurlz, McRae is arguably the most heavily recruited player VCU Coach Beth Cunningham has signed during her tenure.

Thursday, McRae showed what the hype was all about. With 11:11 remaining, senior Courtney Hurt, VCU’s leading scorer and rebounder, went to the bench with her fourth foul. At the time, the Rams trailed 59-57. Over the next seven minutes, McRae combined with sophomore Robyn Parks and senior Andrea Barbour to spark a 16-6 VCU run.

During one sequence, McRae scored five straight Rams’ points, including a play that saw her block a shot and then run the length of the floor in time to score on a feed from Park.

“She’s really come in as a freshman and really made an impact for us with her presence in the paint,” Cunningham said. “One of the biggest things is that she’s just come in with a great attitude. Obviously with her size, just how hard she works, it’s put her in a position where she’s able to get some good results for us.”

While her offensive game is far from a finished product, her size and athleticism allowed McRae to be a factor on the defensive side of the floor. There were signs of growth Thursday, however. McRae entered the game shooting 29 percent (5-of-18) from the floor, but hit 6-of-8 field goals.

NOTABLE NUMBERS
VCU has now lost four straight games to Richmond… The Rams are 3-0 on the road, but 0-3 at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center this season. VCU was 48-10 at home the last four years, prior to their recent losing streak… VCU grabbed 21 offensive rebounds Thursday, 11 more than Richmond, but had just a 17-13 edge in second chance points… VCU handed out a season-high 21 assists. Senior Jennifer Lane and Barbour distributed six each… Thursday’s game featured 10 ties and 17 lead changes.

2011-12 VCU WOMEN’S BASKETBALL PREVIEW

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All-American Courtney Hurt led the nation in rebounding (12.4 rpg) and double-doubles (25) last season. She also ranked second nationally in scoring (23.2 ppg)

When Beth Cunningham took over as head coach in 2003, there was exactly one postseason banner hanging inside the Verizon Wireless Arena for the women’s basketball program.

If that wasn’t bad enough by itself, that lonely piece of fabric was old enough that the tournament it was intended to celebrate, the National Women’s Invitation Tournament, had changed its name since the Rams’ 1995 appearance.

Now there are five banners, including a giant gold and white one from VCU’s 2009 NCAA Tournament appearance. In Cunningham’s eight seasons at the helm, the Rams have rewritten VCU Women’s Basketball history. VCU has reached the postseason in four consecutive seasons. The Rams are working on a school-record streak of five straight winning seasons. Three of the program’s four 20-win campaigns have come under her watch. The school’s all-time leader in victories with 148, Cunningham has coached two WNBA draft picks and an All-American.

At this point, when she takes inventory of the program, Cunningham doesn’t have to ask what the Rams have done, it’s what they still need to do. When she looks up into that northwest corner of the arena, she knows the answer. The Rams are still chasing their elusive first conference championship, Colonial Athletic Association or otherwise. VCU reached the championship game in 2008, another first for the program, but fell to Old Dominion.

“It’s something that you’d like to have already done, hang a championship banner, but there’s been so many good things that have happened with our program…it’s part of the building process,” Cunningham, 148-100 in eight seasons, said.

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BETH SPEAKS

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I had a nice chat with Beth Cunningham at CAA Media Day Tuesday. Behold, the fruit of that labor. The Rams are picked second in the CAA Preseason Poll and are returning an All-American. Safe to say that expectations are high.

BASKETBALL PRACTICE BEGINS!

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The men are still a week away, but VCU Women’s Basketball team practice started yesterday. Should be interesting. Expectations will be high for the Rams, who have made four straight postseason appearances (which also coincided with me moving from my original role as women’s basketball SID. Hmmm). VCU has two All-CAA players returning, All-America Honorable Mention Courtney Hurt and Andrea Barbour. VCU has never won a CAA title. Could this be the year?

BARBOUR RIGHT AT HOME AT VCU

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Andrea Barbour doesn’t like interviews. It’s nothing personal. She’s just not comfortable talking about herself. She talks in a low, indifferent tone. Her eyes often drift towards the floor. Her uneasiness is obvious. At least she now knows how VCU’s opponents feel.  Since joining the Rams on the court this season, Barbour has been making other teams squirm.

Through 18 games, Barbour, once an ACC All-Rookie selection at Virginia Tech, is averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and more than two steals and assists per game. A 5-foot-10 junior guard, Barbour is a matchup nightmare. With her size and length, she can play nearly any position on the floor. She’s bigger than most guards, but quicker than most post players.

A transfer from Patrick Henry Community College, Barbour had to sit out the fall semester in order to catch up on academic credits. VCU is 13-5 since she suited up in late December. Teamed with potential All-America candidate Courtney Hurt, the Rams have arguably the most potent 1-2 punch in the Colonial Athletic Association. READ MORE…

TUESDAY: STILL HERE

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So, first I missed out on the lotto for $350 million or whatever it was and now yesterday’s gig as an extra in a Virginia Lottery commercial failed to yield any future acting work. So much for Hollywood. I suppose that means you’ll see me in the office the rest of the week.

There was plenty of action this weekend, however. Both the VCU men and women beat Northeastern, a maneuver also known as the Huskie Sweep. I’ve already talked a bunch about the men’s game on Saturday, so perhaps some thoughts on the women’s contest?

HUSKIES HUMBLED
Frankly, this team women’s team is better than most of us expected. Courtney Hurt is better than we thought. The bench is better than we thought. Newcomers Sonia Johnson and Andrea Barbour are better than we thought. Everything.

The Rams topped Northeastern on Sunday, 79-58. Hurt dumped 19 points and 13 rebounds for her 14th double-double in 15 games.. VCU also got 17 points, six assists and three steals from Barbour (feature on her forthcoming) and 12 points from Johnson. Junior point guard Jennifer Lane also dished out seven assists.

So, we know the Rams are pretty good. The only problem is that we don’t know how good. But, in this world of instant gratification, we wait for nothing. The Rams (9-6, 4-1 CAA) meet both Old Dominion (Thursday) and James Madison (Sunday) on the road this week. By Monday, we’ll know much more about this squad than we did yesterday.

OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • As good as Barbour has been, and she has been good, I think her best is yet to come. Barbour is a special type of athlete. She can literally do everything. Not only can she score, she can rebound (6.5 rpg), defend (3.0 spg) and handle the ball (2.8 apg). She’s too athletic and big for most of the guards in the CAA to match up with and she’s too quick for most post players.
  • Speaking of Barbour. She made her first start the other day. Senior Jessica Taylor had started the Rams’ first 14 contests, but was said to have told Coach Beth Cunningham that she was perfectly comfortable coming off the bench and would be more than happy to give way to Barbour in the starting lineup. Taylor knocked down 2-of-3 3-pointers yesterday and finished eight points.
  • The Rams had 19 assists yesterday and turned the ball over just 10 times.
  • Robyn Parks grabbed seven rebounds and scored five points in just 12 minutes off the bench Sunday.
  • Hurt’s double-double (19 points, 13 rebounds) was her 14th of the season. She needs five more to establish a new VCU single-season record.

TUESDAY LINKS!

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