RICHMOND, Va. – Despite the 7,700 rabid souls burying Winthrop under an avalanche of angst-tinged decibels draped in gold, despite the rising mercury inside the packed Verizon Wireless Arena, despite his frantic, Briante Weber-meets-R. Lee Ermey sideline demeanor, it was a couple of clock malfunctions that finally made Eagles’ Coach Pat Kelsey lose his cool in VCU’s 92-71 win Saturday.
Kelsey wore his suit coat buttoned up for the first 31 minutes of game time – VCU Coach Shaka Smart lasted exactly 23 seconds with his jacket on – before a clock glitch with nine minutes left inspired him to dispose of it rather dramatically. Kelsey shed the tailored garment as if it was on fire, before spiking it to the ground like a Brooks Brothers football. He also yelled angrily towards the timing crew, actions for which he immediately apologized.
The outburst occurred just as VCU began to distance itself from Kelsey’s plucky Winthrop club. What had been a four-point game minutes before was now 69-58 in the Rams’ favor, and VCU was beginning to tighten its grip under a hailstorm of pressure. Winthrop had successfully inbounded the ball on the play in question, only to be immediately halted by the referees’ whistles.
Kelsey later explained this behavior as Havoc-related.
“It’s a root canal trying to get the ball inbounds against those guys. So every time the clock malfunctioned, we had to figure out a way to get the ball back in bounds. I just lost my composure and those poor people looked at me and said, ‘we can’t do anything about it. It’s not our fault’, and I walked over and apologized. I just didn’t want to try to keep getting the ball in against those guys.”
VCU’s Havoc has claimed a number of victims over the last five seasons, but this may be the first documented case of formal wear meeting its demise under the diamond-like pressure of the Rams.
It was that relentless pressure that yielded 25 turnovers. It was also Havoc, Kelsey said, that turned his shooters’ legs into Jell-O. Winthrop shot 54 percent (15-of-28) from the field in the first half, including 6-of-10 from three, and trailed just 45-41 at the break. But in the second half, the Eagles withered, shooting 40 percent (8-of-20) overall and 2-of-9 beyond the arc. For 30-plus minutes, Winthrop battled No. 14 VCU, but eventually learned why the Rams earned such a high ranking.
“It’s what they do,” Kelsey said of VCU’s press. “You can’t simulate in practice. You can try. You try to prepare your guys for it. I think we took their first punch. We took their second punch. We took their third punch. But that cumulative effect of their pressure, they just keep coming at you, they keep coming at you and keep coming at you, it wore us down and it got to us, and I think that was the story of the game.”
VCU held a plus-11 (25-14) advantage in turnovers and outscored Winthrop 30-13 off those miscues. In the second half, it was even more pronounced. The Rams turned the Eagles over 16 times in the final 20 minutes, and outscored them 20-6 on turnovers. Shooting guard Andre Smith was an early catalyst for Winthrop, sparking the Eagles to an 18-14 lead and hitting 4-of-5 three-pointers in the first half. But in the second, he was 0-of-4 from beyond the arc, including a couple of open looks, and scored exactly one point.
It wasn’t just VCU’s defense that pureed Winthrop’s upset bid. It was the Rams’ constant attacks on the paint via dribble penetration. The Rams were quicker at nearly every position, including at point guard, where Briante Weber (16) and JeQuan Lewis (11) established new career highs for points. In all, six players scored in double figures. Often, the Eagles were left with little option but to foul against their faster counterparts. VCU shot 48 free throws in the game and made 34. If that wasn’t enough, the Rams also outrebounded Winthrop by 16, 43-27. VCU snagged 19 offensive rebounds in the game. After a while, it was too much for the Eagles to withstand.
“They shot 48 free throws, which, in my mind, is a tribute to what I call their assault on the paint,” Kelsey said. “They just attack. They just attack. Constantly put pressure on you and wore us down.”
It wasn’t a perfect game for the Rams by any means; far from it. But on the heels of Tuesday’s emotional win at No. 25 Virginia, a couple of fistfuls of Havoc were enough. Smart practically sambaed around using the words “trap game” Saturday, but acknowledged that this contest was placed precariously between two ACC foes.
“A couple of coaches I’ve worked for would’ve called this a ‘trap game’. I don’t really use that phrase, but it was an emotional win, the UVA game. We put a lot into that,” Smart said. “And then with winning; you don’t win in a vacuum. You don’t lose in a vacuum. There are responses that you get from the people in the community on campus, classmates. I’m sure our guys got a lot of pats on the back after that UVA game. Plus, there’s this Puerto Rico event on the horizon that our guys are excited about, so here this game was and we needed to take care of business. I thought in the second half we did a good job of that.”
But that’s the power of Havoc, it would appear. Its inherent strengths often so powerful, that the Rams can survive an emotional dip or an occasional poor shooting night. It’s a style that can mitigate faults like few others. In 2011, the Rams were plagued by inconsistency and still charged to the Final Four. The 2011-12 team was young and wasn’t a particularly good shooting team and still won a conference title and an NCAA Tournament game. Last year’s squad had its struggles on the defensive glass, and stormed into the top 25 and the third round of the NCAA Tournament. With a roster configured specifically to play this style – quick, deep, energetic –the Rams can keep coming in waves.
Smart acknowledged that the Rams will need to play better in order to beat their next opponent, Florida State, at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off next week in San Juan. But on a night when VCU wasn’t its best, the Rams were able to lean on the traits that have made the program a household name.
As for Kelsey, he eventually put his suit coat back on, but it didn’t help. Once the clock started ticking again, it was only a matter of time before it struck midnight on Winthrop’s upset bid. Meanwhile, VCU, and Havoc, marched on into the night.