RICHMOND, Va. – Whatever Shaka Smart said or did at halftime of Thursday’s game, he should remember it and then repeat it every day for the rest of the season. I don’t care if he built his team up, tore it down, broke a whiteboard or played “Fire on the Mountain” on the banjo, he needs to bottle it, because if VCU can play better than the first 14 minutes of the second half of Thursday’s 86-68 blitzing of UMass, I’d like to see it.
VCU, trailing 42-37 at intermission, embarked on a 21-1 run at the start of the second half and turned a tight game into a chance for fans to beat the traffic. At one point, VCU pushed its run to 44-12 and assumed an 81-54 advantage before calling off the dogs with six minutes remaining.
“I think we were able to break their spirit a little bit with that run, and that was the determining factor in the game,” Smart said.
It was like watching the best possible version of the Rams for 14 unmatched minutes. The Rams (20-5, 8-2 A-10), who won a game by 51 earlier this season, actually found a sixth gear. UMass’ first 11 possessions of the second half went as follows: turnover, missed 3-pointer, turnover, missed 3-pointer, free throw, turnover, turnover, missed 3-pointer, shot blocked, turnover, turnover. By the time that hellacious six-minute stretch was over, it was 58-43. Game, VCU.
Junior Rob Brandenberg personified VCU’s second half turnaround. After missing all eight of his field goals in the first half, Brandenberg scored the Rams’ first six points of the second on the way to 12 second-half points. His success is meaningful to VCU. The Rams are now 12-0 this year when Brandenberg scores at least 11 points in a game.
Not since VCU opened its CAA Tournament semifinal against George Mason last March on a 22-0 (and 32-4) run had the Rams looked so unbeatable against top-notch competition for any significant stretch of time. The Rams have flat blown some teams out this year, but none of those dominant performances came in an important league contest, one that looked so close for the first 20 minutes.
“That was a great step for us going forward because sometimes in the past we would come out flat in the second half,” said Brandenberg. “So, for us to come out like that tonight that’s what we’re going to need moving forward the rest of the conference season.”
The game was every bit the drag race it was built up to be, as UMass pocket-sized point guard Chaz Williams raced around the floor with VCU’s Darius Theus and Briante Weber nipping at his heels to set the tone for some of the most unrestrained basketball of the college hoops season.
The first half featured seven lead changes and five ties, but UMass’ willingness to play at VCU’s preferred frenetic pace might have been its undoing. The Rams are used to track meets, and they’re deeper. UMass’ bench played a total of nine minutes in the first half, and in the second period, it seemed to work against the Minutemen (16-7, 6-4).
As the tempo quickened and legs weakened, VCU thrived. The Rams, who scored just eight points off turnovers in the opening half, converted 13 UMass second-half turnovers into 20. VCU turned the Minutemen over a season-high 24 times in all on this night. Williams, who came into the night averaging 16.1 points per game, finished with just six to go with seven assists and six turnovers.
Despite a five-point halftime deficit, VCU’s second largest of the season, Smart didn’t flinch. He kept the pedal to the floorboards and waited for the levee to break.
“I said, I like where we’re at right now,” Smart recalled. “The reality is, guys, there’s some fixable things that occurred in the first half that if we address, we can really go on a run on these guys. And the style of play is to our liking, so, over the course of a 40-minute game, that’s going to be to our advantage.
“I think our guys really bought into that and came out attacking in the second half.”
They didn’t stop until it was all over.
Freshman Melvin Johnson knocked down 8-of-13 field goals, including 2-of-4 three-pointers and finished with a season-high 18 points for the Rams. Johnson’s dynamic performance, a buffet of playground-infused shimmies, floaters and bank shots, came over the course of just 18 minutes.
“He was great,” Smart said. “I thought his approach was terrific. He was very confident, yet he respected the scouting report and respected what it was going to take to be successful.”
It was Johnson’s sixth double-digit performance of the year and his first since a 12-point effort at Richmond on Jan. 24.
With Thursday’s win, Smart became the first VCU coach to win 20 games in four consecutive seasons. J.D. Barnett once won four in five years, but otherwise, no previous coach can match Smart’s consistency. He’s 104-33 in four seasons.
It’s the Rams’ seventh straight 20-win season and the 18th overall for the VCU program. Smart is now tied with Barnett for the most 20-win campaigns all-time.