A BRAND NEW DAY

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Norwood Teague's tenure at VCU was marked by the success in basketball and the growth of the Ram Athletic Fund.

It’s my first day in the office since February. Did I miss anything?

Okay, so I wasn’t roaming the Sahara for the last nine weeks. I’ve been keeping up on the goings on Broad and Harrison, but it’s a different place than the one I left, figuratively speaking.

Athletic Director Norwood Teague is headed to Minnesota. Shaka Smart is still here, but Women’s Basketball Coach Beth Cunningham, who made the Rams relevant for the first time under her watch, has left to become the Associate Head Coach at her alma mater, Notre Dame. And then there are those pesky conference rumors. You guys have been busy.

In an attempt to get this blog back on the rails, I’ll take a moment to touch on the personnel moves. I can’t and won’t discuss conference rumors. I don’t know anything anyway. As far as I’m concerned, those are just rumors until proven otherwise.

Norwood Teague to Minnesota: It’s tough to see Norwood leave. Much has been accomplished since his arrival in 2006, especially in men’s and women’s basketball. His hire of under-the-radar assistant Shaka Smart has been a home run, the Siegel Center suite and club seat addition was a big hit and a $10 million practice facility is in the works.

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HURT OPTS FOR EFFORT OVER EASE, RUNS TO VCU SCORING MARK

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Senior Courtney Hurt set VCU's career scoring mark Thursday. She has 1,755 points.

RICHMOND, Va. – Courtney Hurt had been so good at basketball her whole life, she really had no idea what playing at the Division I level would be like. Her freshman year can euphemistically be called an education.

“When I first got here, to be honest, I didn’t think college basketball was going to be that hard, that much different than high school,” the VCU senior forward said. “My senior year [I averaged] 28 and 12. I thought I could just come in and perform. But I had to take a step back and coach pushed me really hard. It was the card I was dealt, and she got her point across after about 100 suicides.”

Thursday, Hurt, long since removed from the country club work ethic of her freshman year, became VCU’s career scoring leader with a free throw at the 10:03 mark of the second half of the Rams’ 47-41 loss to Drexel at the Verizon Wireless Arena. Hurt, who has 1,755 career points, broke Kelly Hoover’s 23-year old record of 1,750.

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HURT CLOSING ON VCU SCORING RECORD

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Courtney Hurt needs 22 points to become VCU's career scoring leader.

When Courtney Hurt was a freshman, VCU Coach Beth Cunningham made it clear that rebounding would earn her more playing time. Four years later, rebounding may have been what got Hurt on the floor, but it’s scoring that has made her unforgettable.

Hurt needs 22 point to pass Kelly Hoover to become the Rams’ career scoring leader. She’ll get a chance on Sunday, Jan. 22 at George Mason at 2 p.m. at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va. If she doesn’t reach the mark Sunday, she’ll get another crack on Thursday, Jan. 26 when the Rams host Drexel at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

Through 17 games, Hurt is enjoying another spectacular season. The Conyers, Ga. native is averaging 23.2 points and a Colonial Athletic Association-best 12.6 rebounds per game. If she continues at her current pace, she could surpass 2,000 career points. No Ram, man or woman, has reached 2,000 points since the RPI-MCV merger formed VCU in 1968.

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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?

HUSTLE AND FLOW

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RICHMOND, Va. – If Beth Cunningham has cracked the code on Old Dominion, she’s not telling. But after VCU’s thorough beating of the Lady Monarchs, 74-53, Thursday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena, it was clear that this once lobsided series had entered a new phase.

The Rams (15-9, 10-4 CAA) capitalized on 15 ODU turnovers to build a 10-point halftime lead and were never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The victory gives VCU it’s first regular season sweep of the Lady Monarchs (17-8, 11-3 CAA) since the 1972-73 season. The Rams are just the second team in CAA history to sweep ODU in the regular season, matching James Madison’s 2008-09 squad.

After decades of ODU dominance in the series, VCU has managed to turn the tide. The Rams have won four of five from the Lady Monarchs. Additionally, VCU’s last two losses to ODU have come by a total of three points. It’s VCU’s largest margin of victory in the series since the 1972-73 season.

ODU’s shadow over the CAA is huge. The Lady Monarchs once won 17 straight league titles. So, if the Rams have discovered the formula for beating Old Dominion, they could probably make a mint if they could bottle and sell it.

It’s a win that also earned the Black and Gold some breathing room on Delaware for one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top four seeds for the conference tournament. VCU’s win, coupled withe Blue Hens’ loss to George Mason on Thursday, gives the Rams a two-game lead on Delaware with four league games to play. The Rams and Blue Hens meet Feb. 24 in Newark, Del.

Under the direction of Wendy Larry, Old Dominion has traditionally fielded deep, athletic squads. But on Thursday, VCU made the Lady Monarchs look stunningly ordinary.

Playing in front of a season-high “Pink Out” crowd of more than 1,300, the Rams looked energized.VCU won nearly every “hustle stat”, pounding ODU on the glass, 49-34, while forcing 21 turnovers. VCU had 21 offensive rebounds and outscored the Lady Monarchs, 21-8 on second-chance points.

Junior star Courtney Hurt lived up to her billing, delivering 27 points and 19 rebounds for her 20th double-double of the season. The Rams also recieved outstanding complimentary performances from juniors Andrea Barbour (17 points, 5 rebounds) and Jennifer Lane (9 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds).

OTHER NOTES

  • You know what the scary thing is about the CAA this year? The scary thing is that Courtney Hurt, who is averaging 23.2 points and 13.1 rebounds per game this season, might be considered by some as the third-best player in this league behind Dawn Evans and Elena Delle Donne.
  • VCU is really, really good when it gets solid contributions from players like Jennifer Lane, Chelsea Snyder, Robyn Parks and Jacqueline Brewer, as it did last night. Hurt is going to put up numbers, but if the Rams can rebound, defend and hit a couple of key buckets around her, they can be very, very good.
  • Eric Maynor, VCU grad and current member of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, was at the game Thursday. Maynor spent much of the game signing autographs and taking photos with fans. He left with about five minutes in the game and the Rams ahead by a comfortable margin.
  • If you need any further proof that every game counts, VCU’s inexplicable loss to Towson earlier this year continues to haunt them. The Rams are currently fourth in the CAA at 10-4, behind 11-3 UNC Wilmington and 11-3 ODU, as well as 13-1 James Madison. If the Rams had beaten Towson, they’d be second, since VCU owns tiebreakers with both the Lady Monarchs and the Seahawks. Towson slipped to 2-12 in CAA action on Thursday.

WE’RE STILL HERE; RAMS THWART ODU, JOIN LIST OF CAA CONTENDERS

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NORFOLK, Va. – If nothing else, the VCU Women’s Basketball team sounded like a championship contender after Thursday night’s heart-pounding, 63-60, victory at Old Dominion. Like a team in mid-season form, the clichés were out in full force.

“…any time you can go on the road and win in the CAA is big.”
“We’ve got to take it one game at a time…”
“…it’s just another game…”

Etcetera, etcetera. Rinse and repeat.

Yup, the Rams said all the right things. They tried to be overtly humble and show a sense of perspective. They tried to act like it was just another game, but it’s really not that simple.

The magnitude of Thursday’s victory over the Lady Monarchs (11-6, 5-1 CAA), previously unbeaten in the CAA, is much greater than that. Considering that VCU (10-6, 5-1 CAA) once went 37 seasons between victories in Norfolk until a 75-56 triumph last season, it’s impossible to call any victory in the Ted Constant Center just another win. Not if you want anybody to believe you, anyway. READ MORE…

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