BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Shaka Smart tried to warn us. Troy Daniels is a stone-cold gunner from beyond the 3-point arc.
Those aren’t Smart’s actual words. He said something more like, “Troy Daniels is the best shooter I’ve ever coached,” many, many times during the senior’s career. But I like my version better. Because on Saturday, Daniels answered the call for the Rams in one of, if not the biggest spots in his career, so I used more interesting adjectives.
Behind the Roanoke senior’s 20 points – most importantly his 6-of-9 three-point shooting – VCU withstood UMass and secured a 71-62 win in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals Saturday night at Barclays Center.
The victory sends VCU, playing in its inaugural season in the A-10, to a Championship Game match-up with 16th-ranked Saint Louis on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Daniels’ lights-out shooting was the kind of performance that showed everybody why Smart was comfortable placing such a strong label on his senior during his career.
“He’s just a great shooter,” Smart said of Daniels, who has hit 240 career 3-pointers. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever coached. He’s always been terrific in practice, but his first couple of years he had a hard time playing with the confidence to go out and shoot the ball in. Today he did, and all year he has and that’s why he’s one of the top single-season 3-point shooter in Atlantic 10 history.
“We need him to make threes because that’s a big part of what we do. I think it fits in well with our style of play and our guys do a nice job of finding him.”
VCU struggled to knock down shots for long stretches Saturday, but at some of the game’s biggest junctures, there was Daniels, holding a UMass trump card. The Rams shot just 36 percent (25-of-70) for the game, but Daniels was 7-of-10 from the floor. It couldn’t come at a better time. VCU’s leading scorer, Treveon Graham was in the midst of one of the toughest nights of his career. The sophomore, who averages nearly 16 points per game, had several good looks rattle in and out and finished 1-of-12 from the field with three points. No matter. Daniels filled the void with atomic fireballs from deep.
Daniels began his assault late in the first half. The Rams trailed 23-15 and were struggling to find points. Off a Juvonte Reddic offensive rebound, Daniels struck from three. Moments later, Darius Theus found Daniels again. He wasn’t done. Less than 30 seconds later, Briante Weber used a UMass turnover as an opportunity to run the floor and find a wide-open Daniels again. Three more.
In a span of 57 seconds, Daniels engineered a personal 9-0 run to give VCU a 24-23 lead and swing the game’s momentum back in the Rams’ favor. Moments later, Weber, who oozes energy and feeds off momentum, picked up a loose ball in the UMass backcourt and threw down a one-handed tomahawk dunk for a 26-23 lead.
It was a game-changing 11-0 run that began with Daniels. Instead of a reeling VCU and a frustrated, stagnant offense, the Rams puffed out their chests and kept the Minutemen at arm’s length most of the rest of the night.
“That was a big momentum swinger,” acknowledged Weber, who provided 11 points of his own. “And knowing that after he hit the first one, we were coming back to him, and he hit another one. The first play I called was ‘Buzz’, which is his play, and we went back to him and he hit another one. That really turned the tide for VCU. We rode him.”
“It’s a confidence thing,” Daniels said afterwards. “When guys go out on the court and they have that VCU across their chest, we feel like we can do anything, and that’s what it was. It wasn’t a matter of me being automatic. It’s just every time I shoot I think it’s going in. It’s just a confidence factor and I had it.”
At the start of the second half, UMass’ Chaz Williams momentarily recaptured the lead with a jumper. Daniels canned another triple on the next possession to give VCU the lead for good. He would add another trey late in the second half to keep the hard-charging Minutemen at bay.
It was the type of performance you see out of elite shooters. A class in which Daniels now firmly resides. Daniels set VCU’s single-game and season records for 3-pointers this season. But even those 11 threes he hit at East Tennessee State earlier in the season – the most in the country by anyone this year – can’t match the importance of Saturday’s arc prowess.
Sure, people will congratulate Daniels for those 11 threes all day long and they’ll laud his nine triples against Fairleigh Dickinson and his eight at rival Old Dominion, and his highlight-reel bombs from 26 feet, but it’s Saturday’s effort that will color his legacy.
“Thanks goes to the coaching staff and my teammates,” said Daniels. “I get in the gym a lot in the offseason and they want me to shoot the ball and that’s what I do. Shot discipline and stay with it and the results will follow.”
It’s hard to watch Daniels, who has hit 117-of-282 from deep this year, and imagine the inconsistent 3-point specialist from two years ago. Late night shooting sessions, hours of film review and Smart pumping Daniels full of confidence have turned the 6-foot-4 guard into an assassin from 20-feet (and more).
On the nights early in his career when Daniels would struggle, Smart would tell anybody who would listen that Daniels was the best 3-point shooter he’d ever seen. We thought he was trying to convince us of it. Turns out he never doubted days like this were coming. He was simply trying to warn us.
BRANDENBERG SUPPLIES THE DAGGER
While Daniels provided six critical threes in the game, the biggest shot of the night likely came from Rams’ junior Rob Brandenberg.
With the shot clock winding down and the Rams clinging to a 65-61 lead, Brandenberg, trapped in the corner by UMass’ Chaz Williams, stepped back and hit a fallaway three with 1:20 remaining. The Minutemen never recovered.
After the game, Smart admitted that Brandenberg’s shot wouldn’t go on any coach’s teaching reel, but it was a clutch play at a critical moment.
“That was a dagger,” Smart said. “And to be honest…we chart shot quality on our team after every game. We look at, after each game, if we got a great shot, a good shot, a decent shot, a bad shot or no shot, and that was one of worst shot-quality shots of the game, but he had to take it and he made a big play. He jumped up and shot it over Chaz Williams.
“It’s a little ironic because we missed a lot of wide-open easy shots in the game, and then that was the play that kind of put it out of reach.”
QUOTES OF THE NIGHT
“He’s the most energetic person I’ve met in my life. That’s his gift.” – Shaka Smart on Briante Weber
“He’s Mr. Havoc.” – Troy Daniels on Weber.