BROOKLYN, N.Y. – There was freshman Justin Tuoyo, all alone on the right wing. He’d barely played the last month and had missed 12 of his previous 14 three-pointers this season. From behind my position, a Saint Joseph’s fan, who had apparently done some advance scouting, shouted, “He can’t shoot a three, let him shoot it.”
Tuoyo promptly sized up the three and canned it.
Instead of hesitating or letting nerves overcome him on a big stage, the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals, Tuoyo stuck to the aggressive, attacking principles that Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart preaches.
At the time the bucket didn’t seem terribly significant. It gave the Rams a 64-47 lead with 8:11 remaining. But Saint Joseph’s, namely Carl Jones (29 points) and Langston Galloway (25 points), wouldn’t quit and managed to whittle the final margin to 82-79.
After the game, Smart was quick to remind Tuoyo of that bucket.
“I told him in the locker room after the game, I know it’s just one shot, but I don’t know if you noticed, but we won by three, and you hit a three,” Smart said. “So we needed every basket, and I think overall, just the contribution that he made in 14 minutes says a lot about his future.”
That Tuoyo 3-pointer came to typify the contributions the Rams received from its bench Thursday night, particularly some of their younger players. Against a Saint Joseph’s squad that essentially survives with a seven-man rotation, Smart used nine guys for at least 12 minutes and played 11 guys in all.
“The young guys, they stepped up,” said senior Troy Daniels, who finished with 14 points. “Once the older guys started to get into foul trouble, they came in the game and gave us a big push. We needed that going into March. We need that, for the other guys to step up, and they did.”
Take freshman Melvin Johnson, a Bronx native who was playing before a throng of friends and family at the brand new Barclays Center, for example. If Johnson was nervous about his return to New York, he didn’t show it. The 6-foot-3 guard scored 12 points, including eight important ones in the first half as the Rams took a 33-23 edge into the lockerroom. Johnson engineered his own personal 6-0 run early in the first half to give the Rams a 14-6 advantage.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” Johnson said of his performance. “I just tried to come in and do whatever the team needs. I didn’t want to try to do too much extra to try to impress anybody in the crowd. But Coach, he just gives you the green light to attack at all times, so I felt as though I had some great one-on-one coverages, he ran my play a few times and I Just made some plays.”
Wednesday night, Smart received a text message from Johnson’s mother, who told the VCU coach that her nerves “were shot”.
“I told her okay, don’t talk to Melvin,” Smart said after Thursday’s game.
Apparently, she listened. The poised, aggressive Johnson that VCU fans had seen the last month of the regular season was in the arena again. In all, he played 19 minutes off the bench.
“We always want Mel to be aggressive whether we’re playing in New York or Timbuktu,” Smart said. “He’s a guy that, he’s very, very talented. He’s as gifted a scorer as we have on our team, but he’s a freshman and he’s still learning and he’s still making the adjustment.”
In the first half, VCU was called for 12 personal fouls. Forwards Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic picked up their second fouls by midway in the half. So Smart reached onto his bench and summoned walk-on David Hinton and Tuoyo to hold the fort down low. Although they combined for seven minutes and didn’t score any points in the half, the little-used duo kept Saint Joseph’s out of the paint and off the glass as the Rams built a 10-point lead. Tuoyo ended up playing 14 minutes, his most since Nov. 28. Sophomores Jarred Guest (12 minutes, four rebounds) and Teddy Okereafor (five minutes, one assist) were also critical.
“I thought Teddy, Jarred, Justin, David Hinton did a nice job,” Smart said. “We were really, I guess the best word is, outweighed out there on the front line for much of the first half. They just had more bulk and more size. But our guys battled and fought and that’s what helped us build a 10-point lead.”
It was the type of performance that not only allowed Smart to attack Saint Joseph’s short bench, but it also mitigated the Rams’ first-half foul troubles and allowed the VCU coach to keep his starter’s minutes in check. If VCU is to win the A-10 Tournament, it will have to play three games in three days while playing an up-tempo, high-energy system. On Thursday, no Ram played more than 29 minutes.
“We had our other guys on the bench , so those guys that came in had to play at a high level,” Smart said of his reserves. “Otherwise, you’re exactly right, Saint Joe’s would’ve gone on a run and we wouldn’t have gone into the half with a 10-point lead, and we needed that lead at the half because we did not defend particularly well in the second half and the final margin was three points.”
WEBER , VCU BREAK STEALS RECORDS
With his third steal against Saint Joseph’s, sophomore guard Briante Weber broke VCU’s single-season steals mark with 89. Rolando Lamb had previously held the mark of 88 since the 1984-85 season. Lamb set the original record during a 32-game season. Thursday night marked the 32nd game of VCU’s 2012-13 campaign.
Weber finished with a line that was quintessentially Weber: four points, five assists, zero turnovers and five steals.
“He’s huge for us because he really causes problems for opposing ball handlers, whether he steals the ball or not, he’s always a threat.” Smart said. “I thought he gave us terrific energy.”
Behind Weber’s performance, the Rams established a new team single-season record with 382 steals. VCU recorded 381 thefts last season.
VCU’s senior class of Darius Theus, Troy Daniels and David Hinton became the winningest in school history with 109 victories… The Rams forced 17 Saint Joseph’s turnovers and improved to 25-0 this season when forcing at least 15… VCU is also now 17-0 when Rob Brandenberg scores at least 11 points. He finished with 13… The Rams hit 11 three-pointers in the game, the 40th time under Smart they’ve hit at least 10. VCU is 37-3 in those games…. VCU never trailed in the game, the eighth time that’s happened this season.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I don’t know if you know too much about us, but we’re not too conventional.” – Shaka Smart