While VCU’s more youthful fans may be unaware, the Rams share a bond with Charlotte that few other rivals can match. When the Rams and 49ers meet on Saturday, Feb. 9 in Charlotte, it will be the first game between the two since Dec. 7, 1995, back when the schools were more recognizable as UNC Charlotte and Virginia Commonwealth (or the dreaded Va. Commonwealth). Rebrandings aside, that’s plenty of time for people to forget the battles these two schools waged in both the Sun Belt and Metro Conferences. In fact, Charlotte is the only school VCU has shared three conferences with.
From 1977-1995, VCU and Charlotte met 41 times, with the Rams earning a 26-15 edge in the series. Between 1980-1988, one of these schools ended the other’s Sun Belt Championship hopes in the league tournament five times. The most famous of those meetings was a March 7, 1988 clash in the Sun Belt Championship Game (the only time these two met for a title), won 81-79 by Charlotte at the Richmond Coliseum.
For VCU, led then by Coach Mike Pollio and high-scoring forward Phil Stinnie, the game would be the school’s last gasp of relevance for a number of years. The Rams were three years removed from the Golden Years of J.D. Barnett, and Pollio was unable to bottle that magic. He would last just one more season in Richmond. It wasn’t until the 1992-93 season that the Rams would reemerge with a winning record, but in reality, it took until 1996’s CAA Championship before VCU tasted real success again.
The championship game bore little resemblance to the team’s two previous meetings that season, a pair of VCU victories. Just a little more than a week earlier, the Rams handled Charlotte 84-65 on the very same Richmond Coliseum floor.
Stinnie, who would average 23.6 points per game that season, suffered through a dreadful 2-of-10 shooting performance in the first half as the 49ers took a 34-30 lead into the lockerroom. But in the second period, VCU fought back. The Rams knotted the score at 57-all on a Chris Cheeks 3-pointer from the left wing with 9:40 left, and the game would remain tight to the wire. However, Charlotte never surrendered the lead. The Rams had one final chance, trailing 80-79 with under seconds left, but Vince Wilson missed a 10-foot baseline jumper and Charlotte held on for the win. Charlotte headed to the NCAA Tournament, while VCU was relegated to the NIT.
It would be the last postseason meeting between VCU and Charlotte and for all intents and purposes, one of, if not the last “big” game between the two…until Saturday. The Rams (18-5, 6-2 A-10) are the current Atlantic 10 leaders at the midway point, while upstart Charlotte (17-4, 5-2) is just a half game back. VCU is trying to retain its league lead and bulk up its NCAA resume, while Charlotte could use a quality win to bolster its own at-large hopes.
For a night, it’ll be nice to return this old rivalry to its previous glory. But don’t get used to it. Charlotte is headed to Conference USA (again) next season.