AKRON, Ohio – VCU freshman Briante Weber turned 19 Thursday, but he wasn’t the only Ram grew up a little bit on this night. The whole VCU team, complete with the blessings and curses of youth, walked out of Akron’s Rhodes Arena with a little more of an upperclassman’s swagger Thursday night.
Darius Theus’ baseline layup with 2.7 seconds left gave the Rams a heart pounding 76-75 win over a quality Akron team. It was a game that the Rams, at times, looked like they had no business winning, but did. When everything went wrong, VCU still found a way. This was a gut-check game. It’s type of win that’s exciting at the time, but will be even more valuable down the road.
“For our players, this is something that we can put in our back pocket and use in January and February,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “Because we’re going to be on the road in league play, in similar environments against similarly talented teams and we’re going to have to find ways to win games that are not necessarily pretty.”
After bulldozing teams in six straight double-digit wins, the Rams found themselves in a dogfight Thursday, bottled up in an arena aptly nicknamed “The JAR”.
This was a coachable moment. Like a pitcher that doesn’t have his good stuff, but manages to slug through seven innings with guile and guts, the Rams battled through. This was clearly not the best VCU effort of the year, but it may have been one of the most important. This was a character builder.
The Rams couldn’t find the range from three (5-of-19), missed a bunch of free throws (10) and could barely see the rim beyond Akron 7-footer and all-around eraser Zeke Marshall. When it was over, it had the feel of a “How did we win that game?” game.
VCU chipped away at a 12-point Akron second half lead with gumption and resilience. The Rams repeatedly pushed to the center of the Zips’ defense to get to the free throw line. VCU made 31 trips to the stripe and used those opportunities to halt the Zips’ momentum. At the half, Akron held a 20-12 edge on the glass, but the rest of the way, VCU crashed the boards to the tune of a 24-15 advantage.
The VCU offense looked stagnant for much of the first 10 minutes of the second half, but when the Rams had to make a play, needed a bucket, a rebound or a defensive stand, they got one.
Sophomore Rob Brandenberg, hobbled by an ankle injury, came off the bench for 23 gutty minutes. He had several critical buckets, but none bigger than a long two-pointer with 3:47 left in overtime as the shot clock expired to give VCU a 72-70 lead.
D.J. Haley averages less than four points a game, but he answered the bell for seven Thursday despite a difficult matchup against Marshall. His tip-in with 1:51 left in OT gave VCU a 74-73 lead. Following the play, the normally reserved, well-read Haley released a guttural scream that encapsulated VCU’s emotional effort.
Freshman Treveon Graham was a dreadful 2-of-7 on free throws before he stepped to the line with 34 seconds left in regulation and the Rams down two, but you’d better believe he knocked down both attempts to send the game into overtime.
Senior leader Bradford Burgess couldn’t buy a jump shot for most of the game, but buried his only 3-pointer of the night to push the Rams to a 68-65 advantage with 2:34 left in regulation. VCU’s leading scorer, Burgess was just 4-of-13 from the field, but 10-of-10 at the free throw line.
“Coach is always talking about adversity no matter what it is,” Burgess said. “It took me a while to hit shots, but I just had to battle through, find ways to score. Getting offensive rebounds, driving to the rim throughout the game, that’s just what I was trying to do.”
And there were more timely, even veteran, plays by some guys with little experience. The Rams dug in and produced a win out of thin air.
Even the final play of the game didn’t go according to plan. VCU, trailing 75-74, got the ball to Burgess in the high post. The Rams’ 6-foot-6 swingman tried to drive right, past the bigger Nikola Cvetinovic of Akron, but the Zips’ forward held his ground. That’s when an unmarked Theus sliced to the rim from the right corner, received a scoop pass from Burgess and beat Marshall to the rim for the winning score. Burgess was resourceful, Theus was aggressive and Marshall was a fraction of a second late.
There was nothing pretty about the game. They will not send this tape to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, but it might have been just what the Rams needed.
VCU was tested, but came away with a victory. The Rams won a game on the road, in front of a packed house, by a razor-thin margin, against a good team. They may be a young team, but the Rams earned some stripes Thursday in Akron.
“I’m really proud of our guys the way they hung in there,” Smart said. “Akron really had it going there making shots built a 10-point lead and could have easily extended it, but the guys did a great job of staying to the plan and being aggressive. We did just enough to win.”